I think someone at Who Do You Think You Are? has been reading my blog (or every other genealogist’s). If the first episode, featuring Vanessa Williams is any indication of the quality of this season, we’re in for a great one.
The Intro Clips
Before we get into the episode, I have comments about some of the sound bites in the introduction.
“It’s not gonna be as easy as it looks on TV.” – Rosie O’Donnell
Well, of course it isn’t. This entire show makes family history research look easy. Go to a library or an archive, find someone who has already spent hours searching through the records for your illusive ancestor. Meet a genealogist and they have all the documents. Find an expert on the specific battle that your ancestor fought in. No, it’s not that easy. To find those documents, you have to search. To find the genealogist or the historian with the expertise you need, might be another layer of research. On TV, they have it easy. I wonder what the context is on that quote.
“This is where it all begins.” Vanessa Williams
Oh no, not that line again. Please?
And Kim Cattrall. Did Sex and the City not make her enough money to hire a genealogist? (Low blow, I know, sorry.) This is her second appearance on the show, previously appearing on the BBC version. In fact, judging by her sound bite, it sounds like she was tracking down the same bigamist ancestor she did in that episode.
On to Vanessa
She goes on a mission “in honor of her late father”. Maybe she hadn’t thought to research her family history before he died, but that’s not an uncommon reaction to losing a parent or grandparent — you want to know who they and their ancestors were because you didn’t find out when they were alive.
The Cemetery Trip
Vanessa started at the family plot at the cemetery, visiting her father’s grave, and looking at some of the other stones for clues. This is a good idea. Look around and see if there are other stones with the same surnames nearby. In my case, I have found more than I was looking for at two cemeteries. At one, I found multiple graves with the same surname, at another, while asking in the office for the location of a couple of graves, they told me about some others in the family that I didn’t know were there.
Vanessa focused on the stone of David Carll, reading the abbreviations in the inscription, assuming what some of it meant, instead of pretending that she was absolutely sure. I like honesty, and it works well in genealogy. They show her taking notes at the cemetery and later in the episode several times. We’ve seen that before on the show. We know that the research has already been done before filming, but the celebrity taking their own notes suggests they have even more of an interest in knowing and remembering the details themselves, and that’s nice to see.
At the Oyster Bay Town Hall, she met the town historian, John E. Hammond. He had a couple records waiting for her. There were two things that bothered me in this scene. First, while she was reading the book, holding that pen in her hand, and even using it as a pointer. Second, John’s comment, “This is where it all started.” Usually it’s the celebrity who says that, and sometimes the genealogist/historian corrects them.
Vanessa headed to Washington DC, but first checked in with the sponsor’s site and searched for David Carll in the US census, finding that David was mulatto and his wife was white. On my second viewing, I noticed the computer: it had a sticker across the middle (where the Apple would have been) with the show’s logo.
At NARA, researcher Vonnie Zullo produced David’s pension folder. I like that she had to tell Vanessa that she could touch the document. I haven’t personally done a lot of work in original records, but aren’t there times you’re not allowed to touch them? At least not without gloves on, I suppose. Soon pulling out the white gloves, Vanessa got to handle the tintype with the picture of David, which they had printed for her. I wonder if they ever found another tintype in a file if they would print it for any ordinary person. Let’s be optimistic and pretend that they would, especially since they probably wouldn’t let it leave the building for someone to print it themselves.
Headed to the South
Going to South Carolina, Vanessa met with Hari Jones, a Civil War expert, who was able to tell her about what David’s regiment did for the war, not only the battles, but staying behind to be sure the slaves were liberated. That was a great story.
Back to the Beginning
Most episodes start with a visit to the family to ask questions. While this one started showing Vanessa with her family, she didn’t ask any genealogy questions. At this half-way point, she began climbing up another part of her family and visited her uncle Earl Williams in Baltimore for more information about her father’s family. She pulled out the notebook and wrote her great-grandfather’s name, John Hill Williams (though she just wrote the name without a note saying who he was), but followed that with asking his wife’s name. And that’s how you do it when you interview your relatives to put together the family tree. You just keep asking for more information; get the father’s name, ask about his wife, ask his dates of birth and death, ask for hers, ask about their parents, etc.
Are We Done with the Restaurants?
Meeting with genealogist Natalie Cottrill, she told Natalie what she has already discovered from her uncle. When hiring a genealogist, you have to tell them what you already know, all of it, and share with them the records you have, so they can find more and not repeat research already done. Natalie found the family in the census, listing his wife Mary, then “went further” and found Mary’s obituary. I wonder what other records were found on the way to that discovery that wasn’t shown in the episode — genealogists know there was probably a lot more done to get there. As Vanessa read the obituary, she again stopped to take notes on her ancestors’ names. I wish she would have read the whole thing through once before interrupting to take notes. I also noticed that after her father’s name, it listed a couple of siblings, which were ignored in the episode. While the episode is focused on tracing backwards, it’s important not to skip over siblings when doing research.
Natalie had another census for the next generation going back in her family, finding that William Fields, father of Mary, was a school teacher. We already learned earlier that both of Vanessa’s parents were elementary school music teachers.
“Every clue I get is just another piece of the puzzle to my life and who I am. Education was in our blood, and the importance of education is here in black and white right in front of me.” Seeing her ancestor with the same profession as her parents was very interesting. I’ve never found a genealogist in my ancestry, but finding the musician ancestor was very meaningful.
The census also showed that he was mulatto. I thought the episode might have been headed back to find his slave origins and who might have been his father, like the earlier episodes for Spike Lee and Emmitt Smith. And him having been a teacher so soon after the Civil War, it got me thinking that perhaps he was the son of the slave owner, but was also educated because of that fact. Of course, that is entirely speculation, but might have been interesting had they followed up on that part of the story.
Back to the South
To the Tennessee State Capitol, Kathy Lauder, an archivist at the State Library and Archives, showed Vanessa a statue listing William Fields, who served in the legislature in Tennessee.
“This is where it all begins,” takes it’s place after this scene. Instead of meaning that her family started there, it seemed like she was saying that that was the place where her family started to take a stand and change history for African Americans, comparing William to her own history as the first African American Miss America. Much better than previous similar lines from other episodes.
They had a photograph of all the representatives, and provided her a larger copy. How often do you go searching for your ancestors and find not just one but two photos that were not held by members of your family?
Again with the white gloves, Vanessa got to see a couple of documents from William’s time in the legislature, including a bill to require parents to send their children to school.
“And this was passed…” Vanessa inquired. “To a committee… where it died,” Kathy finished. It wasn’t actually good news, but I thought it was cute how the question was answered.
To learn more about William, Vanessa met with Dr. Beverly Bond, an historian, at the Memphis public library. A document about the church where he had been a teacher and his obituary were consulted.
At the Shelby County Archives, archivist Vincent L. Clark pulled out a large book of minutes from the Quarterly Court, where William had served. After reading an entry written about him after his death, she got very emotional, comparing his story to her father’s.
Vanessa returned to her home in Los Angeles to share what she had learned about her family.
At the beginning of this article, I suggested that someone had read my previous articles. There was no superfluous music video at the end and no genealogists met Vanessa in a cafe or restaurant; the only non-library or archive meeting was in an office. They still had the “coming up” sections before commercials, but they did away with the recap when returning, which is especially noticeable if you watch the episode without commercials.
Unlike the previously mentioned episodes for Spike and Emmitt, Vanessa didn’t pursue her history back to it’s slave roots, although it was implied that William Fields was probably born a slave. They ended on a positive note of her two ancestors, one who fought to free the slaves and the other who tried to improve their lives after the Civil War. Because this show is about family history instead of genealogy, continuing to trace backwards for more was not entirely necessary, but of course, I wonder if they did.
I don’t know if they included more American history lessons in this show than in others, but I certainly appreciate them. All of my families and most of my clients’ immigrant ancestors arrived to Ellis Island, so the Civil War era is never part of my research. Including details is important for understanding. Watching the BBC version once, I got a little lost in the history because I never learned British history.
This article continues the Nitpicker’s Version series. The previous season ended with the episode for Spike Lee.