WDYTYA – 3×03 – Blair Underwood – The Nitpicker’s Version

Sadly, I’ve already fallen behind in reviewing the episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? but I will continue on. In my defense, I didn’t see the latest episode yet, so I’m still only two behind, and now one with this article. ;-)

Blair Underwood’s episode thankfully did not start with that two minute introduction like the first two did. They should have enough content to fill the 42 minute time slot without that every time; there is always more to look at or explain.

Blair already had great information about his Underwood line but wanted to learn more about his mother’s line. His father was an army officer in the 1960s and his grandfather was the second African American police officer in Steuben, Ohio.

At The Parents’ House

His brother, Frank Jr., had been working on the Underwood side for years. His mother, Marilyn, shared what she knew about her own grandmother, so Blair had his starting point. Frank Jr. explained that most families run into brick walls maybe 300 or 500 years back, but as African Americans, their brick wall is 150 years ago. This is something they share with a lot of Ashkenazi Jewish families, except for us, it’s just under 200 years. There just weren’t any records kept before that for many places, and if they were kept, they were not only few and far between, but they pre-dated the adoption of surnames, making it that much more difficult to figure out.

DNA Testing

Blair pulled out an Ancestry.com DNA test, saying he would mail it out right then. His next voiceover started with “while I’m waiting for the results…” As much as we’d like to believe they do the research live on the show, I’m pretty sure he sent in his DNA for testing months before. Not only do they need to get the results back in the hopes of finding something, but then they need to follow up with that research. Please, a little reality.

This episode already reminded me of Emmit Smith’s episode, where he took the DNA test and they found where in Africa he came from.

Blair also specified that the DNA test was for the Underwood side of the family. So did they just do the Y-DNA test? He’s researching his mother’s line in the episode. Did they not care to test the mtDNA or the autosomal, or did they not get useful results so they didn’t mention it?

Didn’t Have To Go Far

Sometimes I wonder if they specifically look for what the celebrity wants to know, or if they suggest which part of the family that person should “research” during their journey to talk about during the interviews. Do they just happen to find interesting stories if they look hard enough for any family?

Blair immediately started with looking for his mother’s grandparents, Harry Royal and Ada Belle White. From his parents’ house in Petersburg, he didn’t have to drive far to get to the Library of Virginia in Richmond. Genealogist Joseph Shumway was waiting for him with information.

They started with the marriage record for Harry and Ada, finding their parents were Ben and Fannie Royall and Thomas and Mary White. One document, one generation, just as it should be. I always find it a little disturbing when they jump back multiple generations without the slightest hint of the how they got there. Did they fill in all the vital records in between or just find thing to help them jump back further? Did they skip past the people that were listed as farmers in every census to find the one that sounded more interesting or did they also research that person in case there was a good story to tell?

Joseph then shared the marriage record for Ben Royal and Fanny Early. The spelling differences listed here are just as they were in the documents. Slight changes like these are easy to find, but genealogists have to learn to keep an open mind about variations. There are multiple reasons for spelling variations. I didn’t like how they kept referring to him as Benjamin when all the records they showed listed him as Ben. Did they have that name in something they didn’t show? Sometimes the shortened version of the name is the one a person is actually given.

They didn’t show it in the episode, but apparently that marriage record showed Fanny’s parents, Sonny and Maria, but didn’t mention Ben’s parents. Also, I’m not sure why they were suddenly showing the wife’s name before the husband’s in their chart.

Teaching Real Genealogy

At that point, Joseph explained that he’d done some looking around and found more about Sonny Early. So here we had the genealogist guiding the research, instead of making it seem like Blair did all the work himself.

The 1900 Census listed Sauney Early. Blair read across to some of the other columns to know more, something beginners often don’t do. Joseph pointed out the top of the page, the location of the census, at Central State Hospital. Blair knew it was a mental hospital.

We don’t know if he asked the question live; it could have been a voiceover added later, but Blair asked about looking at earlier censuses. I thought it was great how Joseph explained in this episode about the records, that the census was taken every ten years but that 1890 was lost in a fire. Thus, they went back to 1880, finding Sawney was a farm laborer. What they didn’t mention was that he was living with his wife Maria, daughter Fannie, and mother Malinda. They like to skip back generations, and right there they ignored one. In 1870, they found him as a blacksmith, with Maria and Alexander. Relationships weren’t listed, but the age was right for a possible son.

Joseph then explained again that the next logical step would be to search 1860, except that slaves were not listed, and having not found Sawney suggested that he wasn’t free. I always like when they use the correct words, that evidence or lack of evidence suggests things or that certain things are possibilities, rather than stating something as a fact no matter how likely it was if still unproven.

They call this “the wall” in African American genealogy. Blair mentioned that he knew ahead of time that he would hit this wall of slavery. Again, analogous to Jewish genealogy, first we hit the Holocaust (and sometimes its lack of records), then we hit the beginning of record keeping and surnames not much sooner.


The timeline was constructed by voiceover while Blair was driving to his next destination, wondering about the decline of the mental status of his ancestor, Sawney, from blacksmith, to farm laborer, and finally to the mental hospital.

In Lynchburg at the Jones Memorial Library, historian Dr. Dan Fountain guided Blair to look at newspapers on microfilm. Blair seemed to enjoy one article which called Sawney a “pestiferous darkey”. The next article described him as a “religious enthusiast or lunatic”. A third article from the New York Times was already printed for Blair, though it was news from Lynchburg. If it made the NYT, wasn’t it big enough to be in the local paper? And what made them even think to look in the NYT? In each article, it mentioned that Sawney was shot, and the third said he was killed, but Blair knew that that had to be incorrect since he was in the census after that time. So again they taught that not every piece of evidence is correct. One last printed article about the last incident, and they then headed out to see the geography where the incidents took place. A map revealed where Sawney lived and a deposition gave him a reason for killing his neighbor’s cow. Suddenly, he had a purpose for his actions and they didn’t seem quite as crazy.

In the end, they didn’t find out why he ended up in the hospital. Wasn’t that the intention of that line of research? Or did they find out and it didn’t make the episode? They just kind of abandoned the story.

Shifting Focus

Focus shifted to Ada Belle White’s family. Back in Lynchburg to see Joseph Shumway again, a death certificate for her mother, Mary, added her father’s name, Delaware Scott. Back to Ancestry and the census, they went to the 1860 census. Blair was worried they’d hit the wall again, but found his ancestor listed. Blair recalled that a slave would not be listed in the 1860 census, but he noticed that he was a land owner. Looking at the other names in the household, noticing an older woman named Judith, they realized that she was probably, then possibly, his mother. Since the census didn’t define the relationships, that was the correct conclusion.

At The Library of Virginia, Blair met historian Dr. Eva Sheppard Wolf. She had a register of free negros, explaining that it had even more information than was found in the census. The first record verified that Judith was his mother and that he was born free. Because he was born free, Blair asked and Eva answered that it was “a foregone conclusion” because the status came from the mother. Interesting, in that Jewish status also comes from the mother.

Free Blacks Going Way Back

Blair was surprised to hear that there were so many free slaves at the time, and Eva explained lots of information about free slaves, how they could become free, and the laws of the time.

I like how on one record, she asked, “Do you want to try to read that?” Sometimes it amazes me that the celebrities can read the old documents so easily. Maybe they’re clearer in person, or maybe we just don’t see them given a transcription. The document pointed out that Judy married Samuel Scott. Blair was amazed that there were free Blacks in Virginia in the 1790s, calling it “a monumental discovery”.

Switching to the chart, they added on Judy’s maiden name and her mother’s name, but they never showed in the episode where that information came from. Clearly, they had more documents that made the editing room floor, but they included it in the family chart anyhow.

Back To Lynchburg

For more on the Scott family, they had to go back to Lynchburg. Eva brought Blair to the Court Street Baptist Church where they looked first at land deeds. Were these records kept in the church? It seems like an unusual place to find land deeds. Tax records showed Samuel Scott had two slaves in 1838. Back to the 1840 census, which listed only the head of household, it showed he had one slave over the age of 55. It was fascinating to me to learn so much about free Blacks, and the laws about how they had to leave Virginia, and that free Blacks would own their relatives so they could stay together.

I was actually surprised that Blair didn’t come up with that idea, because it was my first thought while watching. Why else would anyone own slaves that old and especially without owning younger ones?

Then he finally hit the wall. There were no records that told how they became free. I did recall that in one census, Blair noted that the family was listed as mulatto. Remembering previous episodes of WDYTYA, I wondered if maybe they had the “usual” story that the illegitimate child of the slave owner was freed.

DNA Results

According to the voiceover, his DNA results were just in. I’m pretty sure they were in a while before filming began. Why can’t they make more honest voiceovers? Dr. Ken Chahine from Ancestry met with Blair, explaining about the DNA tests a little. Having the normal range of 26% European, again nobody mentioned that census listing earlier where Blair noticed the family was listed as mulatto. After finding the general area of Africa that his DNA matched to, they found one person who apparently was a 10th cousin, born in Cameroon.

Now, I can only wonder how they figured they had a 10th cousin. First of all, what DNA test did they do? At the beginning, we knew that the DNA was to test the Underwood side, so they likely did the Y-DNA. Maybe I’m forgetting something, but how could they possibly be so accurate? I certainly haven’t looked at the DNA results on Ancestry, but is there anywhere that says the relationship given is just an estimate? That was not shown in the episode. I don’t think they could possibly guarantee an exact result so far back.

Ken explained that Blair and Eric clearly shared a relative on the paternal line around 1600 or 1700. So, then there was about a 100 year range of when they shared a common ancestor, but somehow they also narrowed that down to a 10th cousin?

Back To Africa

Blair was thrilled to find out he was going to Cameroon. Had he seen the earlier episode where Emmit went to Africa and he was hoping for a similar result? Blair took his father and they met their very distant cousins.

It was interesting that Eric was asked in 2005 to take a DNA test because African Americans were wanting to trace their ancestry by DNA. Was Ancestry collecting DNA samples even before they offered the service? I don’t remember hearing about their tests until very recently. Or maybe the samples were shared between companies?


I thought this was a great episode. Of course, there were things I still think they could improve, but it seems like they’re reading all the blogs and critiques and making the episodes better. Or maybe they are just watching their own episodes and realizing the same improvements the rest of us see.

Putting more reality into the episodes is good. As much as these shows are for entertainment and to get people interested in doing their genealogy, without a little reality, people would give up very quickly when they didn’t get the same kind of results. Instead of implying that the researcher (aka, the celebrity) will know where to look and be able to find everything on their own detracts from the work the professionals have done. I like to see the celebrity sort of leading the research and asking their own questions, but it’s also good when they meet a pro and, instead of asking if they can find something, the pro just says “I found some things for you.”

I like to see the genealogy lessons that were in this episode, even though they didn’t point out each one. There was the lesson of checking the census and searching back every ten years, 1890 being burned, and 1860 not listing slaves. There were plenty of possiblies and probablies and other such words where there should have been. And when they found the newspaper article stating Sawney had died, when they already knew he hadn’t, showed that not every document is always correct.

The DNA test bothered me a little. Certainly my own DNA testing has recently colored my distaste for those. While the test is scientific and some results are good, the way they determine relationships between people still needs a lot of work. However, when they narrowed down his ancestral location, showing several places on the map, that was more believable to me. And I can believe that they found a very distant cousin, it was defining the distance of the relationship that I know could not be possible.

This is the third article in the Who Do You Think You Are? Nitpicker’s Version for Season 3.

  1. Martin Sheen
  2. Marisa Tomei

The URL for this article is http://idogenealogy.com/blog/2012/03/09/wdytya-3×03-nitpickers/.

2 thoughts on “WDYTYA – 3×03 – Blair Underwood – The Nitpicker’s Version”

  1. Do you know who may have owned the ancestors at the time they would become mulatto? As my ancestors date back to 1641 in Lynchburg Virginia, and Blair could be related to me, as am white

  2. I watched this episode, and Sawnee (yes, another spelling) was my GG grandfather. I heard many stories over the years, and Sawnee was often the butt of family jokes. My question here is how did he go from being Black to Mulatto? I believe that Sawnee was a mixed blood and have heard that he was of Cherokee descent through his mother. Mulatto was used in Virginia to erase Indian heritage. From what I understood, Sawnee wasn’t HAVING NONE OF IT, so yes, of course he “was crazy” and a conjuror and talked to the devil. He had quite a temper. All the right reasons to put him in an institution.

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