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 a Georgia sheriff

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."

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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: A 1864 state census shows he was exempted from military service, alongside several thousand other Confederate men, to provide for the protection of "women, children, and invalids," according to Georgia law at the time.

It's not clear if Cole ever served in the military, though a letter he sent dated December 15, 1862 still identifies him as the Chatham County sheriff, according to public records; and he is again identified as sheriff in an 1866 Savannah city directory, during what would have been the dawn of Reconstruction.

By 1870, Cole 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 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 show he did email 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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