The actor S. Epatha Merkerson played Lieutenant Anita Van Buren in 390 episodes of the long-running procedural Law and Order, from 1993 to 2010. I thought she was very credible in playing someone who had to deal with some added burdens in the workplace. She talked about the wigs she wore for the show.
I got the sense that Alex Trebek was a big fan of hers when she appeared on Celebrity JEOPARDY in 1999.
But she’s done a lot more. Epatha was nominated for two Tony Awards. She was up for Best Actress In A Play in 2008 for Come Back, Little Sheba, and Best Featured Actress In A Play in 1990 for The Piano Lesson.
I did not know that she was Reba in 16 episodes of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, primarily because I never watched the show. Currently, she plays Sharon Goodwin on Chicago Med, a program I’ve watched exactly once.
What I did see her in was the Freedom Tales episode of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which first aired on February 5, 2019. It reran early in 2022.
One of the most significant findings was that an ancestor of Epatha, Patrick Hawkins, was one of 272 people enslaved by the Jesuit priests of what is now Georgetown University who were sold to two planters in Louisiana in 1838. Money was tight for the educational institution. There’s a pretty good Wikipedia page on the subject.
“Despite her success, Merkerson recounted how she had ‘always wanted to know’ where her family came from. When she asked her grandmother to tell her about their ancestors, her grandmother responded, ‘It’s painful. You don’t need to hear any of this.'” This is not an unusual response.
“The ‘inventory’ compiled by the Jesuits for the sale listed the name of every slave. On the list were five of Patrick Hawkins’ relatives, his wife Letty, his son Peter, and his father Isaac. Georgetown recently renamed the Former Jesuit Residence after Isaac Hawkins following student protests over its original name that honored one of the Jesuits involved in the sale.
“Brought to tears, Merkerson responded, ‘They have names…they have names. They’re not just faceless people.'”
At the end of the episode, S. Epatha Merkerson attended a reunion of the GU272 Descendants Association. “GU272 is dedicated to preserving the memory, commemorating the lives, and restoring the honor of the GU272 enslaved people sold by the Maryland Province Jesuits in 1838 and those who were enslaved before, during, and after the sale by the Society of Jesus. As Descendants, we commit to reconciling our ancestors’ enslavement, reconnecting families, and renewing ties lost.”
Epatha said on the Finding Your Roots episode that maybe she’ll be able to take courses at Georgetown. Implicit was that she should be able to take them for free.