It’s not easy to access photos of famous black people from centuries ago, but on top of that, many individuals who looked ethnically ambiguous during the time of segregation would not lay claim to their black roots. For these and other reasons, there are plenty of people of note throughout history—even today—who, much to the public’s surprise and sometimes their own, are part black. Here’s a list plucked from HowStuffWorks and Styleblazer of famous people you didn’t know were black.
General Alexandre Dumas
Dumas is one of the unsung heroes of the French Revolution. He was born in what today is Haiti to a white aristocratic father, and a black slave mother. Dumas’ father took him to France to spend his childhood, where those of mixed race had more opportunities. In France, Dumas entered the military academy and eventually became a general. He went on to lead over 50,000 soldiers, allegedly single-handedly captured 13 prisoners, and fought in the French campaign to conquer Egypt. In the 1790s, Dumas was captured by Napoleon’s followers and thrown into a dungeon, where he was left for two years. He was eventually released, but that was the end of his military career. However, his exciting career inspired the novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” written by his son Alexandre, who also wrote “The Three Musketeers.”
Anatole spent most of his adult life hiding his roots, but he was in fact born to light-skinned black parents, and raised in a predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood. Broyard succeeded in joining the segregated Army as a white man and after leaving the Army, he opened a bookstore in New York City, eventually becoming a copywriter at an ad agency. Broyard landed himself a job as a book reviewer for The New York Times, all the while living as a “white man,” even to his wife and children. In 1990, Broyard died of prostate cancer but his daughter wrote a book exploring his identity issues: “One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets.”
“Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night…” goes the “Flashdance” soundtrack. Ms. Beals–still fit and beautiful as she was in her immortalized role in the 1983 hit film–is of mixed race. Born in Chicago’s rough-and-tumble South Side, Beals’ father is African-American and her mother Irish-American. Beals claims she felt that she “always lived sort of on the outside,” being “on the other side of society.” The first time she was able to express this dichotomy was in the film “Devil in a Blue Dress,” playing a bi-racial woman who attempts to pass as white.
Here’s where identity comes into the picture as an arguable way to express one’s race. This super-masculine action film star, born Mark Vincent, never met his father, and his mother is Scottish, English, and German. Being “definitely a person of color” according to him, he was raised by his mother and her husband, his African-American stepfather, in a time where anti-miscegenation laws were still existent in some American states.
Best-selling author of “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers,” and “What the Dog Saw,” Malcolm Gladwell was born to a Jamaican mother and British father. Gladwell took no issue with his mixed heritage and in fact, found it to be great material for his writing. In his New Yorker stroy, “Black Like Them,” Gladwell extrapolated on the differences between American blacks and West Indians, making observations about his own family and upbringing including discrimination among his dark- and light-skinned ancestors.
Carol Channing was already making a splash on Broadway in productions like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Hello Dolly” when she discovered that her father was a light-skinned black man. Channing did not dwell on race issues, but went on to be a great gay rights activist. She rarely spoke during her life – or in her memoir “Just Lucky I Guess,” – about being of mixed race. However she did recall a time her mother warned her in an argument that her own children might come out black. Channing allegedly said she hoped they would.
Say what you will about this celebrity, this maybe-talent Nicole Richie is the adopted daughter of pop legend Lionel Richie. While we realize that adoption does not denote race, Richie is indeed of African-American lineage: her biological father Peter Michael Escovedo was of Afro-Mexican heritage. She also holds Creole and Spanish ancestry. At a young age, Nicole was put under the guardianship of Richie and his wife after her parents, friends of Richie, could not financially support her.
The former member of American rock band Fall Out Boy was known for his signature look of stick-straight hair. It was only after his band dissolved that he began to let his natural hair show, and that hair was tight curls. This prompted rumors that Wentz might have black ancestors, and the rumors turned out to be true. Wentz’s family on his mother’s side is from Jamaica.
Viewers were confused when O’Brien debuted as the host of CNN’s “Black in America,” until they discovered the star anchorwoman is the daughter of a black Latina mother and a white Australian father. Although O’Brien grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, her parents told her she should identify as black. O’Brien has spent much of her career fighting for equal coverage for people of color in the media.
Queen Charlotte of England
The wife of British King George III descended from a Portuguese family who traced their ancestry back to a 13th-century ruler named Alfonso III, and his “Moor” mistress, Madragana. Some historians question these speculations, but scholar Mario de Valdes y Cocom quotes the queen’s personal physician as having said she had a “true mulatto face.”
While he does appear to be terribly Caucasian, this handsome fella’s pedigree is really multi-faceted. His father, Wentworth Miller II, is of African-American, Jamaican, English, Jewish, German, and Cherokee descent, while his mother Joy Marie is of Syrian, Lebanese, Dutch, Russian and French heritage. Miller III (Wentworth) sums it all up: “My father is black and my mother is white. Therefore, I could answer to either, which kind of made me a racial Long Ranger at times, caught between two communities.” He played the character burdened by his racial ambiguity in the film “The Human Stain.”
Literary genius Pushkin was the great-grandson of an Ethiopian prince named Ibrahim Gannibal. Gannibal was relocated to Russia when he joined the army, which is how his grandson found roots there. Pushkin’s mixed ethnicity didn’t prove to be problematic, but he did have a turbulent life for other reasons: he wrote a lot about social reform and revolutions, and was eventually exiled by Russian authorities, later to be pardoned by Czar Nicholas.
“Bridesmaids” and “Saturday Night Live” are just a few impressive roles on the resume, but Maya Rudolph could pass for perhaps Greek, Italian, Arab, Latina, right? Not quite. Her father, Richard, is Ashkenazi Jew songwriter and producer, and her mother is the late Minnie Riperton an African-American soul singer who died at age 31 of breast cancer. “I feel like I come from a smaller off shoot of black people because I’m mixed. People say I’m African-American, but that doesn’t include the other half of me.” She also played Michelle Obama on SNL!
Action movie fans will know Fosberg from his roles in “Hard to Kill” and “The Presidio.” Fosberg played a white character in both of these films, and never thought he should fulfill any other role—he grew up in an upper-class family, with two seemingly white parents. But at the age of 32 he discovered his biological father (he’d been raised by his stepfather) was black. The discovery spurred Fosberg’s memoir, “Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race and Self-Discovery,” as well as further discoveries. He learned his grandfather had been chairman of the Science and Engineering Department at Norfolk State University, and his great-grandfather was a start pitcher for the Negro Leagues – U.S. professional baseball leagues predominantly made up of African Americans and, to a lesser degree, Latin Americans.
This Guns N’ Roses guitar-shredding musical rocker was born Saul Hudson in Hampstead, London, to his African-American mother Ola and his white English father, Anthony. His mother left the family when Slash was very young to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles, and his disgruntled father soon brought him over to America to join her. It seems a rocky parental relationship was always a part of Slash’s upbringing, including alcoholism, selfishness, and constant moving. When his parents finally divorced, Slash lived with his flighty mother. On being a black and white musician: “As a musician, I’ve always been amused that I’m both British and black; particularly because so many American musicians seem to aspire to be British while so many British musicians, in the sixties in particular, went to such great pains to be black.”
Alessandro de Medici
The Medici family played a major role in the Italian Renaissance. Not only did Alessandro patronize many of the greatest artists of the time, he was buried in a tomb designed by Michelangelo. Medici was the first black head of state in the Western World, but his ethnicity was rarely addressed. The prince was born to a black servant woman named Simonetta da Collavechio and 17-year-old Cardinal Giulio de Medici, who later became Pope Clement VII.
The Long Island native who has been recording hits for about 20 years, and is a massive celebrity presence, is actually the daughter of an African-American-Venezuelan father and a white Irish mother. Her mother, Patricia, was disowned by her family for marrying a man of color. After her parents separated, Mariah grew up with her mother, and become estranged from her father. She has said of her mixed race biology: “You know, it’s still not that common to be a multi-racial person, but I’m happy with the combination of things that I am.”
The Grammy-award rapper/singer sensation of the last few years has an interesting background. Raised in Toronto, Ontario as Aubrey Drake Graham, Drake’s father Dennis was a drummer from Memphis, Tennessee, and his mother Sandi a white Jewish-Canadian. After his parents divorce, his father moved back to Memphis, and Drake became two halves of very different environments. His upper-class “white” status in Canada was held against the rough streets of Memphis, where his father was arrested multiple times. On racial complexes: “That’s a very American thing as well, light skin and dark skin, like I don’t even notice that.”