Saturday, March 5, 2011

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Lionel Richie

This week's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with Lionel Richie was quite a contrast compared to the episode with Kim Cattrall in the approach to the research.  It looked like Cattrall was doing most of the research because the majority of the episode revolved around personal interviews, and she was the one asking people questions.  In Richie's case, there was no pretense that he was doing any of the research.  He went from researcher to researcher and asked them what they had for him to see.  Still not realistic from the perspective of the average person who is doing his own family history research, but refreshingly honest nonetheless.

Almost everything in this episode revolved around research on one person:  John Louis Brown, Richie's great-grandfather.  The narrow focus gave us a more in-depth picture of one person than we usually get on the show.  Apparently Richie's maternal grandmother had never talked about her father, and no one in the family knew anything about him.

Richie started his journey by going to Tuskegee, Tennessee, to visit his sister Deborah, the keeper of the family photos (shades of Rosie's O'Donnell's brother here).  Again, it's always good to start family research by talking to other family members.  Together they looked at several photographs, and then Deborah held up a manila envelope that she said had their grandmother's Social Security application (SS-5) in it, which she had not looked at yet.  If she hadn't looked at it yet, how did she know that's what it was?  Having ordered several of these over the years, I know that occasionally you'll get not a copy of the SS-5 but just a Numident printout, which tells you very little.  Even if Deborah hadn't looked at it, obviously somebody must have, because otherwise it could have been a huge disappointment.

The great revelation on the application was that Richie's grandmother had listed both of her parents' names:  Louis Brown and Volenderver Towson.  (I was disappointed they didn't research Volenderver, because now I'm curious where that name came from.  Google showed only 13 hits, and they all referred to Richie's family.)  Because his grandmother was born in Nashville, Richie went there to begin his research.  At the Nashville Public Library he asked genealogist Mark Lowe how to find information about his great-grandfather.  Lowe had a marriage register at hand, and Richie looked for his grreat-grandparents' marriage.  Instead of using an index (second episode we've seen that happen, grrr), he paged through a couple of years in the register looking for Brown entries.  He found the entry, and his great-grandfather was listed as J. L. Brown.  Then Lowe said, "I have another document."  (How convenient!)  It was a divorce complaint brought by Volenderver against Brown.  In the complaint she stated that she had married Brown when she was 15 and he was 50.  Lowe then produced the final decree, which granted the divorce.

Richie did the math and determined his great-grandfather was born about 1840 and his great-grandmother was born about 1875.  He and Lowe discussed how very different Brown and Volenderver must have been, because Brown had been born a slave and Volenderver had not.  I thought this was a rash assumption at the time, because there were free blacks prior to emancipation.  This came up again later with an interesting twist.

Next Richie went to the Nashville Metropolitan Archives and spoke with Prof. Don Doyle.  They found Brown in two city directories.  In 1885 he was listed as SGA Knights of the Wise Men, and in 1880 he was Editor Knights of the Wise Men.  The 1880 directory was literally falling apart; I really wish they had not shown it being used.  Lowe suggested that Richie find an expert on fraternal organizations to determine what Knights of the Wise Men was.  One of the amusing things about this segment was that Doyle could not stop grinning; it made it even harder than usual to suspend disbelief and pretend that Richie was just finding out about all this.

Prof. Corey Walker, the next researcher, explained that the Knights of the Wise Men had been a black fraternal organization that gave support to the community.  Among other things, it provided insurance.  Brown had been the Supreme Grand Archon (SGA) -- the national leader.  He also wrote the rules, laws, and regulations for the group.  Unfortunately, the group suffered financially after a smallpox epidemic in 1891, when it had to pay out many death benefits, and soon after that the treasurer apparently disappeared with the remaining funds.  Brown's marriage to Volenderver fell apart during this period.  During this segment, when Richie was talking about the conclusions that could be drawn from the information he'd been given, he stumbled over his words a lot and it came out very oddly.  It kind of seemed that he started to say more than he would have known if all the research hadn't been done already and then tried to backtrack.

Richie went next to Chattanooga, where the Knights of the Wise Men had been based.  He spoke with historian LaFrederick Thirkill at the public library.  Thirkill had a 1929 city directory ready, which showed that Brown was working as a caretaker at Pleasant Gardens Cemetery.  Richie asked if there was any more information.  Thirkill showed him a small booklet which had a biography and a photo of Brown.  Then Richie asked, "What happened to him?"  Thirkill produced Brown's death certificate.  (I was thinking, "Gee, I wish all of my research questions could be answered that easily!")  Richie looked at the death certificate and saw that Brown's father was listed  as Morgan Brown, but for mother it said, "don't know."  Then Richie said what is probably one of the best lines I have heard on this series:  "Don't you just love records like that?"

Not surprisingly, since he was the caretaker there, Brown was buried at Pleasant Gardens.  Thirkill took Richie to the cemetery, which appeared to be in very poor condition.  The few tombstones that were shown were broken and/or falling over, and the grounds looked as though they had gone to seed.  Brown was buried in the paupers' section, and Thirkill said that as far as he could tell there had been no stone.

Now, back to the question of whether Brown had been born a slave.  Richie returned to Nashville and went to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, where he spoke with Dr. Ervin L. Jordan.  Jordan had found Brown's application for a pension based on his service during the War between the States.  Brown had stated that he served as a servant to his owner, Morgan W. Brown.  Thinking it was too much of a coincidence that Brown's death certificate listed his father as Morgan Brown, Richie wanted to pursue this.

Morgan W. Brown
He headed back to the Nashville Public Library and spoke with historian Jacqueline Jones, where he found out that Dr. Morgan Brown had had a son named Morgan W. Brown.  Dr. Brown's diary, which has survived all these years, had an entry from 1839 which said, "Mariah had a boy child born and named him Louis."  It would have been extremely unusual for a slave owner to note the birth of a child to a slave unless there was some sort of family connection.  Dr. Brown was 80 years old in 1839, and his son Morgan W. was 39.  The odds are obviously much stronger that Morgan W. was Louis' father, but Jones wouldn't commit either way.  She had Dr. Brown's will, written in August 1839, which stated that Mariah was to be freed on his death and that her not-yet-born child was also to be free, and bequeathed her a home if she wanted to stay in the area.  He also directed that the child should have two years of education.  Jones did not state when Dr. Brown died or if Mariah had actually been freed.  I have to assume that the show's researchers couldn't find a probate for Dr. Brown?  Or proof that Mariah had been freed?  Maybe Morgan W. didn't follow through on his father's wishes?  This was one of those times I really wish the show would discuss what they looked for and couldn't find.  This would have been an appropriate episode to do it, as Richie was outright asking the researchers what they had found.

Richie returned to Los Angeles to share his discoveries with "two of my children" (the phrasing sounded very odd) and with his sister Deborah, who must have been flown out for the wrap-up.  He was able to make some strong comparisons between his great-grandfather, who had grown up in somewhat of a protective bubble for the time period because of Dr. Brown's instructions, and himself and his sister, who had been protected by their mother and grandmother from learning about the racial problems going on around them while they were growing up.  He also showed the picture of Morgan W. Brown and told them he was either John Louis Brown's father or half-brother.  His children were pretty subdued, but his sister got very excited and emotional.  I hope the Richies continue to pursue more family history research and maybe find answers to some of the lingering questions.


  1. I was disappointed as well that they didn't explain Morgan W. Brown better. Even details about where they lived, where Morgan Brown's will was written. Did Morgan W. Brown have any children with a married woman, what was the ancestry of the Brown family.

    I became very interested! I'm from Brown's in Tennessee that were Scottish and moved on to Carlinville, Illinois in 1830!
    Joanne Brown

    1. I am actually a descendent of Dr. Morgan Brown IV, which was his father. I was searching for more information about him and that's how I stumbled upon this. I found that Morgan W. Brown was a federal judge in TN. He married Ann Childress and they had three legitimate children: 1 boy and 2 girls.
      Dr. Brown was born in NC and after the Revolutionary War, he moved to TN. My last name is Jones and we are still in NC. I guess Morgan W. Brown's brother Robert (who is my connection to Dr. Brown) moved back to NC and we have stayed here ever since.
      But I have traced this line of my heritage back to 1520 and they were English, so I'm not sure if this is the same line you are from.

    2. Im also a desecdent of Morgan Brown as well, my grandfather (here in Nashville is Morgan W. Brown. the VIII I believe.
      If anyone has more details please email me @ :)

    3. Good luck with your research! I hope someone contacts you.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Joanne. I realize they're constrained by the air time for an episode (about 42 minutes once you account for commercials), but it seems that they should be able to fit in little pieces of information like that. Maybe that was more of what they couldn't find. But now you have some new leads for your own Brown research, right?

  3. What they didn't mention was that Morgan W. Brown was a Federal Judge. He died in 1853 when John Louis Brown would have been about 14 years old. JLB would have been well aware of his father's identity, career, and importance in the community. Mariah may have died when JLB was quite young which could account for why her name was unknown at the time of JLB's death. Since his father's name was known, it seems likely that he was acknowledged as MWB's son.

  4. It does make sense that John Louis Brown was acknowledged as Morgan W. Brown's son. And if Morgan W. died in 1853, then he obviously could not have been the Morgan Brown for whom John Louis Brown was a servant in the Civil War. So WDYTYA left a huge gaping hole here. Did Morgan W. have children through another relationship and was one of them named Morgan W. also?

  5. I found this a fascinating episode, then I saw a photograph of J L Brown, and couldn't believe the resemblance to my father and grandmother. My grandmother was adopted as a baby. While I doubt there's a connection, it made me wish they'd gone into any relationships Mr. Brown had had. Maybe they don't know....
    I enjoyed this article, thanks!

  6. I'm glad you enjoyed the post! It's true that the odds are probably not in favor of a connection, but stranger things have turned up when deep research is done.

  7. One of the things I liked about this episode is that I could perceive a family resemblance between Lionel and his ancestors J.L. Richie/Brown and his great grandfather or uncle Morgan W Brown. They all have big long narrow heads with prominent chins. I think his son got the family head shape too.

  8. The other resemblance Richie commented on was the line down the center of the forehead, which was clearly visible in the photo of J. L. Brown. I don't remember noticing that on Richie's son, but maybe it will show up later in life?

  9. I thought Louis looked just like Brad Pitt (when he has a beard.) He looked blond. He must have been very bright to be able to do all of the things he did. How sad he ended up in an unmarked grave. How unfair. I kept hoping Lionel Richie would end the show by announcing he would pay to restore the cemetery. No such luck.

  10. Thanks for your comments. I think it's said when anyone ends up in an unmarked grave. I had the same idea about Richie offering to restore the cemetery, so I guess we were both disappointed in that.

  11. J.L. Brown was not a body servant to Morgan W. Brown in the Civil War, he was servant to John C. Thompson.

  12. What is your source for the information? That's not what was stated in the episode.

  13. The series does tell us many times that researchers are finding the information and the stars are presented with their findings. And with a tv show the time constraints are down to the second so they can't fit in one more little bit here and there that doesn't directly relate to the search and presenting the story as a compelling drama. It isn't a DIY guide to genealogical research. I would have liked to have found out the meaning of Volenderver but it sounds as if nobody knows. Thompson's name was on the pension document.

    I love this show and think it does very well with emotionally difficult material and complicated histories. Perhaps stars wish to fix up graves or do other things after the show that they don't want publicized, just as private citizens. Now and then there's a note at the end to tell us more but they've already given us a huge piece of themselves and don't owe us anything.

  14. Unfortunately, I have not had time to watch the video of this episode again. Can you please tell me where on the pension document Thompson's name appears?


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