Lionel Richie’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? naturally started with him playing and singing one of his songs. Growing up in the Tuskegee “bubble”, he was sheltered from the civil rights movement. During his opening monologue, he stopped to look at old family photos hanging on his wall.
This episode was unique to the others because Mark Lowe was one of the researchers involved and he shared with us some behind the scenes information during Thomas McEntee’s BlogTalkRadio after it aired.
To Grandmother’s House We Go
Lionel started by visiting his sister, Deborah Richie. He described her as “the keeper of the family photos”. Rosie O’Donnell described her brother the same way. It’s normal for one person in each family to be the designated “keeper”, but to also find that person has done some genealogy research is quite helpful. In Lionel’s case, she had.
They began by looking at some photos. In my own experience, the non-genealogists in the family don’t want to know about the genealogy. They might like to hear stories, but mostly they love to look at the pictures.
Deborah said that she ordered a document and revealed their grandmother’s Social Security application. Some genealogists were wondering if she did that on her own or if the researchers told her to order it. Judging by the envelope, I’d say that they delivered it to her. It was with this document that they discovered her maiden name was Brown and her father was Louis Brown. Previously, they knew about her mother but didn’t even know the name of her father.
“That’s powerful, right there. I love that,” Lionel said in response to learning the name of his great-grandfather. And that’s how it works in genealogy, especially after spending hours researching to finally find the information you seek.
The SS-5, the application for Social Security, is a fabulous document for genealogy research. Is this the first time we’ve seen one on WDYTYA? Not only does it give the parents’ names, but also the place of birth. If your immigrant ancestor lived long enough or late enough to apply for Social Security, it is probably the best place to find their ancestral origin.
I was a little surprised to learn that Deborah had previously done family research but hadn’t gotten this document for her grandmother before. The first documents I ever ordered were my grandfather’s and his brother’s SS-5s. Maybe she didn’t think Adelaide had ever applied?
They also noted that Adelaide was born in Nashville, so I guess she never told them that either.
Meeting genealogist Mark Lowe at the Nashville Public Library, Lionel shared the SS-5 with Mark, again demonstrating what a normal person would do when meeting with a genealogist: share what you know so they have everything and can move on from there. Mark suggested Lionel start searching the marriages about two years before Adelaide was born, so Lionel was shown turning the pages and looking through the list of names to find the marriage record on his own. When they weren’t found in 1891, Mark suggested looking another year earlier, where Lionel found the listing.
Louis Brown, or J. L. Brown as he was listed, would be a difficult person to spot, but with a great-grandmother named Volenderver Towson, it makes it much easier to know you’ve got the right record.
The only thing I would nitpick about this is assuming the marriage was two years or more before Adelaide was born. Some people got married after their first child, even in that time. They probably started at that year to allow Lionel to search a little and to not make him search a lot.
The next document was a complaint to initiate a divorce. And the final decree showed that the divorce was granted in 1897.
At the Metropolitan Government Archives, Lionel met historian Don Doyle. In the 1885 city directory, they found him listed.
“Now you know what you’ve done. You’ve only stoked my curiosity. Because if we can back this far, we got to go back some more.” Lionel was drawn into the hunt early in the episode. I think this season has shown the celebrities even more interested in the research than many in the previous season.
The 1880 directory was falling apart, so Don handled the book. Not knowing what SGA stood for in the first book, they knew that Editor in the earlier one meant that he was literate.
At Prince Hall Affiliated Organization, Lionel met with historian Corey Walker, who explained what the Knights of the Wise Men was. Lionel compared it to an insurance company, which is partly what it sounded like when Corey explained it. Founded in 1879, J.L. Brown was the Editor only one year later according to the city directory. Seeing the Rules, Laws, and Regulations book, Lionel learned that his ancestor had written the book and SGA stood for Supreme Grand Archon, the national leader of the organization.
By 1891, after an outbreak of small pox and the treasurer running off with what was left of the money, the Knights of Wise Men was mentioned until 1915 but was no longer a nationwide organization.
Sneaking in the Ancestry plug during Lionel’s drive to Chattanooga, they quickly showed Lionel finding John Brown in the 1900 census in Chattanooga. How did they know they had the right John Brown? They probably had more information to verify than what they showed on TV; they didn’t even scroll across to place of birth or occupation.
At the Public Library, historian LaFrederick Thirkill had a couple things to share with Lionel. They found J.L. listed in the 1929 city directory as a caretaker at the Pleasant Garden Cemetery. With a smile on his face, Lionel asked, “Any more information?” LaFrederick showed him the book, Biography & Achievements of the Colored Citizens of Chattanooga, which had a page about and a picture of John Louis Brown.
LaFrederick provided one more document: his death certificate. Listed as his father was Morgan Brown, but his mother said “don’t know”.
“Don’t you just love records like that,” Lionel said sarcastically. Yes, Lionel, we do, oh so much.
Visiting the cemetery, Lionel was disappointed at the condition of the cemetery; LaFrederick led him to the pauper’s section of the cemetery, where J.L. was buried, then left him alone to “reflect”. Very respectful. They never did say if he had any kind of marker, whether a stone or something else. I’m guessing he didn’t or we might have seen it.
There were a lot of comments from other genealogists about the cemetery’s condition and how it would not be that way for long. We can’t be certain, but we can hope that these celebrities do the right thing to help preserve and recover cemeteries and old records where they can. If that is happening, then let’s hope that the celebrities continue to have a variety of backgrounds and put some of the money we’ve spent on them to good use for genealogists everywhere.
While many of the genealogists online thought of other US cemeteries that looked similar, I thought of Jewish cemeteries in Europe. I have seen pictures of some and they are in quite similar shape or worse, with some being vandalized or the stones used in sidewalks and buildings. That history can never be recovered.
Back to Nashville
At the Tennessee State Library & Archives, historian Dr. Ervin L. Jordan, with both men wearing the white gloves, reviewed an application for pension in 1924 which revealed the name of his owner, Morgan W. Brown.
“Only assuming that Morgan W. Brown and Morgan Brown, the owner, it’s the same guy.” Later, Lionel said, “I’m on the search now for Morgan W. Brown and Morgan Brown.” Often the celebrity jumps to conclusions and the genealogist has to point out that they’re making assumptions, but in this case, it was Lionel who stated it was only an assumption and was interested in determining if they were the same person. I think even well-seasoned genealogists might assume it was the same person, until they went further in the research and discovered two men with the same name.
Back at the Public Library, historian Jacqueline Jones tried to clear things up, explaining that Dr. Morgan Brown had a son named Morgan W. Brown. In Dr. Brown’s diary, they found mention of Louis’s birth to Mariah, one of the slaves. Further, they found Dr. Brown’s will, where he freed Mariah and her son, gave her a place to live, chose the land to be given to her, and provided two years of schooling for Louis. They could not verify if Morgan W. had carried out his father’s wishes.
Back in Los Angeles, Lionel shared the information with his sister and two of his children. Seen throughout the episode with a black notebook but never seen writing in it, Lionel used his notes to tell his family about the story.
Behind The Scenes
After the episode, we learned some great information from Mark Lowe. He worked on the episode from April to January. For two months, he worked on a part of the family that didn’t make it into the episode. We learned that Lionel was a prolific note-taker, though he was never seen writing during the episode. Apparently, that was partly vanity, as he needed glasses and didn’t want to be seen on screen wearing them, though we saw him folding them up at least once.
Each scene is filmed three or four times, once all the way through to capture the moments of discovery, then again with breaks and camera angle changes to see the documents and such.
Another day of filming that didn’t make it into the episode was platting and visiting the land designated for Mariah in the will, currently on the property of the American Baptist College.
Many genealogists praised the variety of records seen in this episode, also liking that they had to be found in a variety of libraries and archives, just like real genealogy research. The parts they still don’t mention are the eight months of research by the untold number of genealogists working on the project.
They seemed more obvious the first time I watched, but there were a couple times when Lionel had trouble reading the records. I was always a little suspicious about the celebrities being able to read the old records so easily and thought we finally had a break-through, until Mark pointed out the issue with the reading glasses. Maybe someday we’ll see an episode with old Greek or Russian records so we can see how difficult it really is to read some of the old records. ;-)
This article continues the Nitpicker’s Series, Season 2.