After the first watching of this episode, I could only think of a couple things to nitpick about it, and some of those things were actually positive items in the episode. As an African American, Emmitt Smith set out to trace his ancestry to places and historical times where I’ve never researched, so just like the previous episode with Sarah Jessica Parker, I learned new things about genealogy research and history. But that’s the point, isn’t it?
Before he began the trip for his research, his wife mentioned that he had missed some family reunions over the years. He also took a DNA test.
Emmitt began by visiting his parents. I recall the BBC version of WDYTYA also usually starts with visiting family, as did SJP’s episode where she visited her brother and her mother. This is always the best advice for any genealogist just starting out and it’s good how they show that it is the first step.
His father directed him to the web site his cousin had created. Hopefully the work done there was checked to be sure it was correct before continuing back in history.
Burnt Corn, Alabama
Emmitt said he felt like a detective, which is exactly what genealogy research is. I thought that was a great comment.
He stepped into a store to ask about his great-great-grandparents, Bill and Victoria Watson, showing their photos. Did they plan that he would find himself talking to a cousin? Very entertaining for TV, but probably not likely for anyone else, though such serendipity has happened before for genealogists.
While the East coasters were watching the show (and posting spoilers to Twitter), I noticed that a few thought it was nice that Emmitt was seen taking notes. SJP was shown doing that at least once in her episode also. It’s necessary just to keep track of all the new information you gather.
Monroe County Archives
Dawn Crook, an archivist, showed him a book of Marriage Licenses for Colored, which he had never seen before. She suggested that the easiest way to find more was by using the census, naturally going to the sponsor’s site, ancestry.com. By their dates of birth, they determined that the couple were both born as slaves.
The next help he got was from genealogist Marjorie Sholes who said that she was “able to do a little research”. She probably did more than a little, but at least research was mentioned. She found the marriage license for Bill and Victoria, discovering her maiden name was Puryear, which was more rare and would be easier to research than Watson. She sort of guided him to seeing that they should follow up on that particular line of his family. If only we could all know which line would prove most interesting and findable.
Emmitt mentions that if they didn’t find anything about the Puryears that they may be at a dead end. This is very true in genealogy research. In anyone’s ancestry, there will always be a brick wall somewhere. There are plenty of records that don’t exist or were lost in a fire or a flood, or you research back to the beginning of the record-keeping in a location and there’s just nothing more to be found. But even so, if the Puryears were a brick wall in his ancestry, it would still just be one small part of his ancestry. The Watsons were his great-great-grandparents and everyone has sixteen great-great-grandparents.
Going back to ancestry.com, he and Marjorie searched for another census for his family in the first census where blacks were listed by name. Finding Prince Puryear (Victoria’s father), they also noted Mariah listed. He asked if that was Prince’s mother and Marjorie said “possibly”. That was the perfect answer. More of interest in the episode, they pointed out that the family were listed as mulatto, meaning that a white slave owner may have been an ancestor.
An earlier census showed a white Alex Puryear and family and the research continued to them. Marjorie found his will and the will of his wife, Mary, listing Mariah and her children, verifying that Mariah was the mother of Prince.
“Now we know that Prince’s mother is Mariah.” Before that record was revealed, it was only a possibility. This is another great part of the episode, where they didn’t seem to just jump to that conclusion but found some documented evidence and showed it to the viewers.
Mecklenburg County, Virginia
Searching for more information about Mariah’s slave owner, Emmitt headed to Virginia, where Alex Puryear was from, as some documents had stated. He saw Puryear on a few business names while he was driving through. He met with John Caknipe, a local historian, who told him more about the Puryears and the slave trade.
At the county courthouse, they skipped back one generation, with no details as to how, to Alexander’s father, Samuel. Emmitt made a big deal out of the fact that John reached for Deed book 22, which Emmitt made a big deal over having worn that jersey number. I suppose some of the shock there was taken away by the previews of that scene, though some East coasters were amazed at the coincidence.
In the document, Samuel gave Mariah to his son. Emmitt figured that she was about 11 years old at the time. It was noted earlier in the episode that Mary Puryear had kept Mariah and her children together, when giving them to her son, which was significant also.
Meeting with Steven Deyle, an expert in American slavery, he said that “we can only suspect” when he told Emmitt more information about Mariah. Without evidence, sometimes that is all we can do in genealogy research. Emmitt said he had a “hunch” that Samuel was Mariah’s father when asking Steven’s opinion. All of these small bits just show that we can’t always know everything, but knowing the history might give us an idea of the lives of the people we’re researching even if we can never find anything to prove it.
Steven told Emmitt that Mariah was probably the end of the line because there were no more records. As I stated eariler, that is just the way it is. However, Samuel was Emmitt’s 5g-grandfather. Emmitt wanted to know why, if they could trace horses back to England, why he couldn’t trace his family back to Africa. Even without finding that connection, he was lucky to have traced as far back in history as he did. There are so many other families who can’t go that far back.
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak was the DNA expert that he met with, telling him that he was partly Native American and probably had several European ancestors, leaving 81% African, which was one of the highest she had ever seen. From the DNA, she was also able to tell him what part of Africa his ancestors were from, Benin.
The big spoiler, for me, came when the East coasters on Twitter said he was going to Africa; that wasn’t in the previews. He couldn’t trace his own genealogy there since the paper trail had ended already, but he learned more about the slave trade that his ancestors were caught up in.
Ola Falola, guide and translator at the Ouidah Museum of History, with help from guide Madame Loucress, told Emmitt about the history of the slave trade.
At a more remote village, he met Mede Nicasse at the Sanctuary of Moses School, who explained that the children at that school were usually sold by their parents so that the parents could survive. To me, that didn’t sound much better than what his ancestors went through, and maybe it was worse. Instead of Europeans coming and stealing away people to turn them into slaves, their own parents were responsible for the act.
His wife arrived in Africa and they sat on a boat to talk. What did he say to her off screen? She was crying before he even said anything to her in the episode.
Emmitt had a hard time dealing with the slavery part of his ancestry; even being a bit surprised by a book marked Colored, having not been witness to segregation. Being an African American, he obviously knew that he would come from slaves, but maybe he just didn’t really face it before. Or perhaps because he didn’t know the particulars of his ancestry, this suddenly put him in touch with the reality. He now knew the names and a couple of faces of his slave ancestors so he had to really delve into their lives.
This is not all that uncommon from Jewish ancestry, where we all know that we lost people in the Holocaust, and it’s taught in school, but it isn’t talked about much in the family. In the next episode, Lisa Kudrow will follow up on that part of her family history. I’m looking forward to watching that and the rest of the series. It’s been a few months since I was so excited to see a TV show.
This article is the second in the series. The first can be read here: WDTYTA – Episode 1 – The Nitpicker’s Version.