The final episode in the first series of the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? focused on Spike Lee’s search for more about his mother’s history. Just as with Emmitt Smith, as you’d expect from an African American, his ancestry takes him back to his slave roots.
Beginning at the Cemetery
Spike took his kids to visit his mother’s gravestone at the cemetery. After leaving flowers, they also left rocks on the top of the gravestone. I just read an article about that particular Jewish custom and how non-Jews were adopting it. It was interesting to see it here.
Spike talked about his grandmother and how she stepped up when his mother died when he was 19; she helped put him through college and start his business. Then he realized that, especially as a filmmaker, he had “squandered” the opportunity to film her talking about her family. Of course, this is the regret that all genealogists have — that we didn’t ask the questions when we had the people around. Either we didn’t know what to ask, or we didn’t have the drive to know more until they were gone.
A prior DNA test told Spike that his father’s side came from Cameroon and his mother’s came from Sierra Leone.
First Stop, Dublin, Georgia
As Spike began the “drive into town” sequence, the show skipped to the family tree charts, showing his parents, grandmother Zimmie, then skipping back to find her grandmother because he already knew that his great-great-grandmother, Lucinda Jackson, was born into slavery. However, even when you know the next generation back, you shouldn’t necessarily skip over the documentation of the more recent generation. You never know what you might find in the records that you weren’t expecting or that will give clues you’ll need later in the research.
At the Laurens County Library, genealogist Melvin J. Collier helped Spike to find Lucinda’s death record. I know it’s been a while since I’ve watched the rest of the season, but is this the first episode to have the very first meeting with a genealogist at a library instead of a cafe? They went right for the sponsor’s site, Ancestry.com, to find her date of death. At a microfilm reader, they searched for an obituary in the newspaper. Finding it, Spike learned that Lucinda had two other sons.
Melvin called this a “genealogical goldmine”, to find an obituary for someone who was born a slave. Genealogical goldmines are always nice to find. I was recently doing work for client, researching during someone’s lifetime for clues, when the goldmine — and the answer to the client’s first question — was found only in the obituary.
Other goldmines can be jewels in disguise. Years ago, I read that US naturalization papers were a goldmine but that the certificate of naturalization itself was not. I beg to differ on that one. With the certificate, you have all the information you need to find the other paperwork, so I believe that it is just as much of a goldmine since it leads directly to more and doesn’t just serve as a clue to it.
Curious about Lucinda’s husband, Spike continued to look for more by checking the death certificate of her son. In a cafe, though not meeting with anyone, he opened a file on his computer. They don’t mention where this file came from; it just sort of appeared. I wish the death certificates of my great-great-grandparents would just appear on my computer desktop too.
Life on Mars
Spike was amazed to find that Lucinda’s husband’s name was Mars, a name his grandmother had suggested he use in his first film. She told him she had a “crazy uncle named Mars”, though with this discovery, he thought she may have said it was a crazy grandfather. His original memory may have been correct; she may have had an uncle with the same name. The obituary stated that Lucinda was survived by three sons, but it didn’t say if any predeceased her. Did he think about that?
Meeting historian Mark Schultz at the Georgia State Archives, they looked for more information about Mars, specifically to find who owned him. Going to Ancestry again, they found him listed in the 1880 census with the surname Woodall instead of Jackson. This was obviously not such a simple search and again the program failed to show that you can’t always find someone so easily, especially when you’re searching for them listed with a different surname. Mark stated that he was doing an “open search” for the given name Mars in Georgia, apparently with no other search information. By the time they were filming, the research was already done and they knew that searching by the name Jackson would not produce the results they wanted. Also not mentioned, but visible on screen, besides the three sons in Lucinda’s obituary, they had another son and three daughters.
The show went back to their family tree chart, showing the family name changing from Jackson to the earlier Woodall, but didn’t bother to add all the other children in the family. That is sad. How long could it have taken them to add the voiceover “Along with the three sons previously mentioned, from the census, we learned that Mars and Lucinda also had four other children…”?
Who Owned Them?
Back to the Ancestry search, they looked for Woodall in Twiggs County, where they’d already been searching, and found one family with a large plantation. While Spike jumped right to the conclusion, “That’s who owned them,” Mark replied with, “That’s very likely.” Because we know how this show works, we know that Spike is correct, but when someone is actually doing the research, they can’t just jump ahead without verifying this kind of information.
Spike followed that comment by asking if there was any way to verify the slave ownership, but it appeared to be a voiceover, probably added much later while the show was in editing. At least this helps point out that verification is needed. They checked the Slave Schedule and found the list of slaves, but the census only lists the slaves by their ages and doesn’t show their names. They didn’t check if one of the listings matched Mars’s age.
Still working with Mark, next on microfilm, Mars Woodall was found in the agricultural census of 1880 listed as a landowner.
To The Land
Before leaving Georgia, Spike went to see the land that Mars owned, from a map given to him by Mark. Again, they didn’t explain what records were used to find the map to the land.
“It all started here!” How many of these celebrities have gone to a place and said that? I don’t think it started there. I think it started in Africa, where human beings evolved from more primitive beings. Or really it started with the Big Bang. Maybe the generation in this particular part of his ancestry started their free lives there, but why do so many of them say things like that?
Spike had some of the things he wore in his first film as the character Mars sent to him so he could put them on while standing on the land that his ancestor Mars once owned. He then dug up some red clay with a rock and dropped bits of it in a plastic bag. So he planned by having the items sent to him but didn’t think to bring a trowel and a jar for the dirt?
They kept the camera on Spike while he ad libbed all kinds of things while “digging” the dirt. I think a better use of that time would have been to fill in some of the details they skipped over instead.
In a voiceover, Spike said that no one knows what happened to Mars or how he lost his land after 1880.
In the voiceover after the commercial, the narrator still claimed that James Woodall was only the “probable slave master”. They still hadn’t found any verification and unfortunately sometimes that’s the way the research goes. Not everything was documented and not all the documents have survived time.
Back to Lucinda’s Family
The next section started with, “he was sent a copy of her death certificate”. It almost sounded like it was sent anonymously. How about, “the certificate was ordered from the civil records office” or something similar; it would take about the same time to say.
Back to the family chart graphic, they reverted to the earlier version, before finding Mars and Lucinda’s other two sons. Why couldn’t they have just built on to the more complete version?
Spike looked for Lucinda’s parents, Wilson and Matilda Griswold, in the census on his computer. He found Matilda living in Griswoldville with the Grier family, but not Wilson.
To Macon, Georgia
Meeting with historian Daina Berry, she showed Spike several documents. First, on the Slave Schedule in 1850, she found a long list of slaves belonging to Samuel Griswold. A document to hire out slaves mentioned Wilson, probably meaning he was a skilled worker. Another document mentioned Griswold’s home and properties were burned by General Sherman’s army, and some slaves were taken with the army, in 1865.
“An ancestor of mine was on a plantation that General Sherman came and burnt to the ground… That’s history right there.” This line is great, but it’s implication is also wrong. His ancestor has a link to a known historical event, but it’s all history. Every one of our ancestors is part of history, whether they did something significant or not, had some tie to a major historical event or not, it’s all our history. As the tagline goes, “An historian studies history, a genealogist studies history.”
Visiting a large plaque where the town once stood, Spike read that the cotton gin was converted to a pistol factory. Another car pulled up on the other side of the road and historian Bill Bragg shared more information about the factory, including bringing a pistol that was made there. Bill also had a picture of Griswold and another of his wife. They commented that the two didn’t look very happy, but back then, people were told not to smile for the pictures because the exposure was so long that they couldn’t hold the smile long enough to get clear pictures. Because Matilda was listed in the census as mulatto, there was the possibility that the slave owner, Griswold, was her father.
In genealogy research, discovery doesn’t always happen in the most logical order. At this point, the episode returned to the earlier meeting with Daina Berry for more information. Daina pointed out that Griswold’s daughter married Grier, matching Matilda’s age to a listing in Griswold’s list of slaves that was probably her. The narrator explained that when a slave was fathered by the white slave owner, sometimes it was gifted to a family member and sent away. Daina did more research on Ancestry and found a Griswold descendent still alive.
Did they mention Ancestry enough times in this episode? I think this one might have a record number.
Meet the Cousin
In Arlington, Texas, Spike met Guinevere Grier, Samuel Griswold’s descendent. Listening to Spike tell her how they’re related, counting the number of “greats” and explaining their cousin relationship was kind of funny. It is much easier to me to just refer to my ancestors by their names rather than figuring out the relationship, otherwise I stumble over the counts in just the same way.
The superfluous ending music video was broken up with sound bites from Spike. Did they do that in the other episodes? I think so, maybe, but not as much as this one.
Spike seemed satisfied with knowing his family’s slave roots, unlike Emmitt Smith, who wanted to go back further. Emmitt used his DNA test to determine where he was from in Africa, just as Spike did, but this episode didn’t follow up on that with a visit to Africa.
There were several times when Spike would jump to conclusions in this episode. His jumps were the most likely versions of the stories of who the slave owner was or who the father was, but because there is no documentation for proof, and they apparently didn’t try DNA tests to match the families, many of the statements should be said as “likely” and “probably”, as the genealogists and historians stated, instead of “definitely”.
I’m looking forward to the next season of Who Do You Think You Are? Are you?
This article is the seventh in a series: