CNN  — 

They call it the “African American brick wall.”

That’s how genealogical researchers have described the time period before emancipation in the US, when enslaved African Americans were treated as property – including on official documentation.

“For many African Americans, it only takes three or four steps to get back to slavery” on the family tree, CNN’s W. Kamau Bell, who’s researching his own family history in the series “Finding Kamau,” explains. That means “no birth certificates, no wedding invitations, no deeds to land. … None of the things that white Americans can use to trace their lineage back.”

W. Kamau Bell and his dad visit the graves of ancestors in Alabama.

Bell’s family is no exception. There’s a family cemetery, some family lore and a few names – but not much else to capture the big picture. When looking at his own family tree, he hits the infamous “brick wall” by the time he reaches his great-great-grandparents’ generation.

So Bell, along with his parents, Janet and Walter, partnered with Ancestry to try to fill in some of the missing pieces in their family’s puzzle.

First, they discovered some contradictions to the family’s oral history within Bell’s DNA:

And then, in Tennessee, Bell’s mother uncovered something she never expected to find (and it wasn’t one of the “cousin-uncles” Bell jokes about):

kamau bell ancestry tennessee 01