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From the From the Vice Presidents column in the January 2013 issue of Perspectives on History

A Historian among Genealogists: Working on Who Do You Think You Are?

Jacqueline Jones, January 2013

Not long ago my brother asked my advice about a birthday present he was thinking of giving his wife—an ancestry DNA kit. My sister-in-law is interested in genealogy, so he thought this gift would represent a next step for her, providing information about broad patterns of lineage and migration in her family's past.

A growing number of Americans these days pursue an interest in history by researching their forbearers, both recent and remote. The commercial web site, Ancestry.com, which boasts 10 billion records, reports nearly two million subscribers. In the last few years a number of popular television programs have both responded to and stimulated an interest in genealogy. These resources, programs, and advances like DNA kits are all are part and parcel of the new drive to use the internet and science to recover pieces of the past and grow elaborate family trees.

We historians, however, have a somewhat uneasy relationship to genealogists. We jump back in time and write a story that largely depends on a linear narrative. For historians, chronology is everything. In contrast, genealogists start in the present and then work backwards incrementally through time. Their currency is demographic information—names, birth and death dates, and marriages—and the historical narrative sometimes seems secondary to identifying particular individuals.

Still, scholars and genealogists can and should coexist in harmony. Two years ago I had an opportunity to serve as a consultant for—and appear on—an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA) that was broadcast in March 2011. As a result I learned firsthand about the fascinating intersection of entertainment, commerce, genealogy, and historical scholarship in this particular television show.

Sponsored by Ancestry.com, WDYTYA was based on the original BBC show, which at one point had nearly a dozen international variations. The programs follow a basic format: Each episode features a celebrity and then traces his or her roots to reveal a dramatic family story or "secret" that emerges over the course of the hour. Producers do some preliminary research before accepting to profile a person on the show; subjects are chosen in part on whether or not their background includes an interesting and surprising story that can be documented.

In November 2010, I received a phone call from a producer asking for help deciphering and interpreting some historical documents. Only gradually did I learn the name of the celebrity involved—the singer and songwriter Lionel Richie (I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement that I would not reveal his identity to anyone until the show was ready to air). In December I flew to Nashville to look at the original copy of a will prepared by a slaveholder who died in 1840.

Richie grew up on the campus of Tuskegee Institute, where his mother and grandmother taught. His grandmother had attended Fisk University, and when she graduated in 1912 at the age of 16, Booker T. Washington invited her to teach piano at Tuskegee. Though he was close to his grandmother, Richie knew nothing about her parents, Volenderver and John Lewis Brown. The show revolved around the hunt for clues about these two individuals, especially John Lewis (see sidebar).

Moving backward in time, the story that unfolded during the show had several dramatic highlights—Brown's precipitous fall into poverty, for example, as well as the very last segment, which focused on the circumstances of his birth. Along the way to the "end" of the story, Richie was presented with several original historical documents. These materials had been located by the show's researchers, but on-camera experts discussed their historical context and significance in turn. Featured on this show besides myself were J. Mark Lowe, a genealogist; Professor Don Doyle of the University of South Carolina; Professor Corey Walker of Brown University; LaFredrick Thirkill, local Chattanooga historian and educator; and Professor Ervin L. Jordan Jr. of the University of Virginia.

My six-minute segment focused on John Brown's owner, Dr. Morgan Brown, and Dr. Brown's son Morgan W. Brown. (Predictably, the similarity in names was a source of some confusion.) I presented Richie with several documents and images, including a copy of Dr. Brown's will; a page from the 1840 slave schedule, part of the Federal Manuscript Census; an excerpt from Dr. Morgan's diary; a passage from a memoir written by Dr. Brown's granddaughter; and a portrait of Morgan W. Brown. Taken together these materials showed that John L. Brown was the son of one of Dr. Brown's enslaved workers, Mariah, and suggested that he was either the son of Dr. Brown or the son of his son, Morgan W. Brown.

My initial involvement in the show revolved around the will, a fascinating document. The researchers needed me to help decipher the handwriting as well as speculate about its larger meaning for John L. Brown. In his will Dr. Brown stipulates that when he died Mariah should be granted "her freedom forever," and that her two youngest children (she was pregnant with John at the time) should receive two years of schooling. He adds that he is freeing Mariah because she had assisted him in his "long and helpless decrepitude," and notes, "I had long determined no more slaves should be born in my house."

Several clues hint at Dr. Brown's relation with Mariah. He did not free her older children that she brought with her to the plantation when he bought her. In his diary he made special note of John L's birth, and the fact that he had hired a midwife (which he did not do for one of the other enslaved women who gave birth around the same time). His granddaughter's memoir notes that after his wife's death in 1833, the doctor moved to live near the plantation's slave quarters, which would put him near Mariah at the time her baby was conceived in early 1839.

That year Dr. Brown would have been 80; certainly it would have been unusual, but not impossible, for a man of that age to father a baby. Complicating the story was the fact that his son Morgan W. apparently stopped by the plantation "for a short time almost every evening on the way home" while his father was alive. So it might have been Morgan W. who fathered one or more of Mariah's children (he was 40 years old when she gave birth to John Lewis).

The producers gave me a detailed script, along with prompts for interaction between Richie and myself ("Jackie will agree … LR will react"), for the taping in the magnificent reading room of the Nashville Public Library. But soon Richie and I were totally engaged with the subject, and when I showed him the documents, and explained what they meant, he reacted with an intense interest that was literally unscripted.

I certainly enjoyed my six minutes of fame on national TV, and found that the producers took my expertise as a scholar seriously. One of my colleagues at the University of Texas, Professor Daina Ramey Berry, appeared on an episode of WDYTYA with film director Spike Lee. She too enjoyed working with the show's producers, and with Lee himself, recalling, "My experience with WDYTYA was exciting in that I had the opportunity to share the craft of historical research with a wider audience. When the NBC staff approached me, they had some research on Lee's enslaved ancestry and small packet of compelling documents, but I was given full liberty to research the family history even further and found some interesting twists. Lee appreciated the fact that his family had a complicated history."

Historians and genealogists seek to recover facts about the past, but they do not often work together. Whether professional or amateur, genealogists rarely have access to professional historians who might help them understand the broader social context for the material they are researching. As shows such as WDYTYA suggest, however, genealogists and virtually everyone interested in finding out more about family members from the past crave the explanations and narratives that historians can provide. For their part, historians might benefit from the work of professional genealogists who are skilled in navigating increasingly extensive and sophisticated data sets that shed light on kin relations back through time. Too, historians could take advantage of a broader public interest in genealogy and the information that interest might yield. For example, the crowdsourced indexing of the digitized 1940 census records is an example that's largely motivated by genealogical interest but will be of use to historians as well.

My work with the WDYTYA producers and with Lionel Richie reminded me that information about specific family trees holds mass appeal. Genealogical excursions back in time, combined with scholarly analysis of the time period in question, can produce powerful stories that reveal a great deal not only about particular families, but about the great drama of human history. Such collaborations, carried out in a spirit of mutual respect, could very well prove fruitful for the historical enterprise, and for everyone involved.

In a segment that was cut, I told Richie that historians disagree about the nature of unions between slave owners and enslaved women, and that indeed it was impossible to tell much about the affective relations between Mariah and either Dr. Brown or his son. Richie indicated that he preferred to think of the relationship as a great romantic love affair, because, he said, that's how he sees life, and that's what he sings about in his songs. For my part, I was star-struck, delighted to meet Richie (whom I had always admired) and to help him learn more about his family; and it was not my role in the show to argue with him about specifics of interpretation.

Jacqueline Jones, the Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas and the Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History at the University of Texas at Austin, is AHA vice president, Professional Division. Her publications include Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War and The Dispossessed: America's Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present.

John Lewis Brown: A Biographical Note

John Lewis Brown was born a slave in 1839 on a Cumberland River plantation not far from Nashville. During the Civil War he served as a valet to a soldier, one of his master's relations, and later received a modest "Confederate" pension. In 1879 he founded a group called the Knights of Wise Men, a mutual aid society and fraternal order that functioned as an insurance company for its members. Within a few years the group had grown to 278 lodges around the country. A successful man by this time, Brown married (in 1890) a much younger woman, Volenderver, and they had a daughter, Richie's grandmother Adelaide. In 1885 a smallpox epidemic had led to an outpouring of claims that weakened the Knights, and six years later the treasurer ran off with much of the group's money. Volenderver divorced her husband in 1897. Brown ended his days as a caretaker for a Chattanooga cemetery. He died in 1931 and was buried in an unmarked grave there.

Genealogy on the Air

Who Do You Think You Are?
(BBC), 2004–

African American Lives
hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (PBS), 2006 and 2008.

Who Do You Think You Are?
(NBC), 2009–12. Lionel Richie's episode

Finding Your Roots
with Henry Louis Gates Jr. (PBS), 2012–