Muhammad Ali’s activist streak has made him one of the all-time greats both in and outside the ring, and the Washington Post reports that his bravery may very well run in the family. DNA research conducted by Ali’s family shows that he may be the descendant (great-great-great-grandson to be exact), of Alexander Archer, a slave who fought against the institution of slavery as well as for his own freedom.
Born into slavery in Virginia in 1813, Archer was sold and taken to Missouri when the Civil War broke out. Technically, Missouri was neutral, but Archer was owned by a Confederate sympathizer. Archer escaped from slavery and actually would go on to feed information to the Union army during the Civil War. Later, he managed to arrange for the escape of his wife and children as well. Later in life, he would work as a gardener for William Greenleaf Eliot, Washington University’s co-founder and the grandfather of the poet T.S. Eliot. Eliot would sign a protective order that kept Archer safe when slave catchers attempted to capture him again. He’s already been honored in his own way, as a matter of fact. The Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, near the U.S. Capitol, depicts a slave modeled after Archer.
“The beautiful thing about Ali is that he acted all along as if he were royalty, that he had a claim to greatness,” said Jonathan Eig, the author of “Ali: A Life.”
Ali spent much of his life attacking racist ideas,” Eig said. “If he had known that his great-great-great grandfather was such a brave and intelligent man, it surely would have strengthened his argument.” Eig also investigated the claims himself once the family came forward with them, and as far as he can tell, things check out.
Ali’s daughter, Maryum, said that her father would have been proud to call Alexander family. “He would have loved knowing he was connected to someone like that,” she said. “He was ahead of people in understanding that there was a connection that went back through slavery to the kings and queens in Africa.”
The discovery of the connection between the two was made when Ali’s third cousin, Keith Winstead, discovered the link via the website 23andMe. Ali and his wife, Lonnie, participated in a study with 23andMe to raise awareness for Parkinson’s disease. “I didn’t know who Archer Alexander was when I traced the family tree,” said Winstead, 67. “I Googled him, and I just said, wow.”