Ben Affleck was nominated for a Redeemer Award for going from From Razzie "Winner" for "Gigli" to Oscar darling for "Argo" and "Gone Girl." (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
Photo: Evan Agostini
Photo: Evan Agostini

Ben Affleck's slave-owning ancestor was the Savannah sheriff

The ancestor that actor Ben Affleck asked PBS to cut from an episode of "Finding Your Roots" has been identified as Benjamin L. Cole, a "prominent citizen" of 19th-century Savannah and former sheriff of Chatham County who at one time owned 25 slaves.

Affleck confirmed Cole's identity in a tweet Wednesday. "Lots of people have been asking who the guy was. His name was Benjamin Cole - lived in Georgia on my Mom's side about six generations back," he wrote.

The episode of "Finding Your Roots" that aired in October did not mention Cole, but a leaked transcript of an earlier version of that episode, obtained by Gawker, describes Affleck's maternal ancestor as "one of Savannah's most prominent citizens."

Cole was born about 1815, according to public records, and in October of 1850 owned 25 slaves, according to the Slave Schedules in the 1850 Federal Census. (The news was first reported by the conservative website Breitbart, and confirmed by the AJC.)

"God. It gives me kind of a sagging feeling to see a biological relationship to that. But, you know, there it is, part of our history," Affleck told host Henry Louis Gates Jr. in an interview segment that was later cut, according to the transcript.

"One of the things that’s interesting about it is like we tend to separate ourselves from these things by going like,'You know, oh, well, it’s just dry history, and it’s all over now,'" Affleck continued, according to the transcript. "And this shows us that there’s still a living aspect to history, like a personal connection."

As Gates notes in that interview, Cole's possession of 25 slaves would have identified him as a local "elite," as only about 10 percent of all slaveowners had more than 20 slaves.

Cole served as sheriff in Chatham County during the Civil War, though it's not clear if he ever fought in the war or for how long he was in office.

He identifies himself as sheriff in a letter sent Dec. 15, 1862, according to public records; and he is again identified as sheriff in an 1864 census for the Georgia militia and in an 1866 Savannah city directory, during what would have been the dawn of Reconstruction.

Cole's appearance on that 1864 state census suggests he was exempted from service for the Confederate States of America in order to perform home front duties. By 1870, he was working as a bailiff in Savannah, according to the Federal Census taken that June.

Cole — whose great-granddaughter, Elizabeth N. Roberts, is Affleck's grandmother — was removed from the "Finding Your Roots" episode by late August, before it was sent to PBS affiliates, according to Gawker. The removal was one of several details revealed when Wikileaks made public an enormous amount of emails stolen by hackers from Sony Pictures last year.

Gates has denied removing Cole from the episode at Affleck's request, though one of those emails shows he did reach out to Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton in July, asking advice about how to handle Affleck's request. Lynton told him, in part, "It is tricky because it may get out that you made the change and it comes down to editorial integrity," according to the leaked emails.

PBS announced this week it is investigating.

"It’s important to remember that this isn’t a news program. 'Finding Your Roots' is a show where you voluntarily provide a great deal of information about your family, making you quite vulnerable," Affleck said in a statement on his Facebook page Tuesday. "... I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story."

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This story has been updated.

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