Monday, February 27, 2012

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Blair Underwood

The Blair Underwood episode of Who Do You Think You Are? opened with a voice-over about how Underwood has highlighted black issues in his roles and work and has won five NAACP Image Awards.  In Underwood's initial monologue he talked about how family has always been important to him and that he wanted to learn more about where his family came from.  His father was in the U.S. Army for 27 years and retired as a colonel; his paternal grandfather was the first black police officer in Steubenville, Ohio.  He knew some information about his mother's side of the family, not as much about the Underwoods.  The commercials for the episode had indicated he was going to Africa, so we knew that was coming at some point.  I thought it might be the big finale to the episode, as it had been with Emmitt Smith.

Underwood began his research by visiting his parents at their home in Petersburg, Virginia.  His brother Frank Underwood, Jr. is the family genealogist and had assembled information for the family to look at.  (Wouldn't it be nice if in one of these episodes the celebrity was the family historian?)  They discussed what they knew about the family and how they had hit the brick wall of 1865 -- how to find people who had been slaves prior to emancipation.  Underwood said that with "science and technology we can break through" and sent a DNA test kit off to Ancestry.com.

It's really annoying and unfair to constantly parade DNA around as a "magic bullet" that will give people answers about their ancestry.  A recent blog post by "The Legal Genealogist" discussed the general problems, including the fact that the results the tests give are based on probabilities and percentages, not on absolutes.  But people like easy answers, so the tests gain momentum.

Underwood began his research with genealogist Joseph Shumway (of ProGenealogists, owned by Ancestry.com) at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.  Shumway had already found records and showed Underwood the register entries for the marriage of Harry Royall and Ada White (Underwood's great-grandparents on his mother's side) listing their parents, Ben and Fannie Royall and Thomas and Mary White, and the marriage of Ben and Fannie, listing their parents.  The focus was on Fannie's parents, Saunie and Maria Early, and particularly on Saunie.

Shumway proceeded to show Sauney (yes, spelled differently) in the 1900 census -- born 1822, could read and write, but residing in the Central State [Mental] Hospital in Virginia -- 1880 census as Sawnee -- with wife Maria and daughter Fannie, working as a farm laborer -- and 1870 census again as Sauney -- this time working as a blacksmith.  Shumway mentioned that they would not be able to look for Sauney in the 1890 census because it had been burned, which is not entirely accurate.  There was a fire in the National Archives in which parts of the 1890 census did burn, but the reason we don't have it is because after they put out the fire they just left the wet pages as they were.  By the time someone looked at them again, they had been ruined by mold.  Shumway should certainly know that, and it helps no one to give inaccurate information.  I wonder if his research is that sloppy?

After showing Underwood the 1870 census, the two men discussed the fact that during the 1860 census Sauney was likely a slave and would not appear in the enumeration by name.  Underwood declared that they had "hit the wall" of slavery.  While that is true, there are definitely ways to determine former slave owners and then research slave ancestors, and it would have been nice to see Shumway discuss that.  Freedmen's Bureau records, available at all branches of the National Archives, are a goldmine of information.  Did WDYTYA's researchers look at the Freedmen's Bureau records and find nothing?  Did they look at all?

But back to Sauney -- he had obviously declined over the course of 30 years.  In 1870 he was a skilled tradesman, in 1880 a general laborer, and in 1900 in a mental hospital.  So what happened?  Underwood went to Jones Memorial Library in Lynchburg, Virginia to meet with Dr. Dan Fountain, a professor of history at Meredith College.  Fountain had found several newspaper articles about Sauney.  For the first one Underwood scrolled through a microfilm to the date that Fountain gave him, but after that they were practical and used printed copies of the articles.  Sawney (yup, another spelling) was called a "pestiferous darkey" in one article about how he stole a cow from a neighbor, R. M. Chambers; he was sent to jail in Liberty for that.  In the Lynchburg Daily Virginian, an 1897 article discussed how "Sawney" wore badges with cabalistic signs and described him as a "religious enthusiast."  And on January 23, 1884 another article explained that Sauney had been shot and killed by another neighbor, Mr. Tardy, in a fight over some timber.  (That article was in error, since Sauney was still alive in 1900.  Apparently a reporter didn't wait for the full story.)  And another article called Sauney a religious enthusiast again.

All of this led to a discussion of how Sauney must have been a "conjurer", a position in the community which originated in West African tradition.  The conjurer negotiated the boundary between the spirit and human worlds and was a leader in the community.  Now, Sauney had been shot and survived, and he liked shiny things, but it's still a big leap for me to decide he was a conjurer.  He could just as easily have had some mental problems, based on the information presented in the show.

The different ways that Sauney's name was spelled were not discussed at all, which was probably very confusing for people who have not seen this yet in their own research.  It didn't used to be important to spell consistently (Social Security is one of the reasons spelling became codified), and many people were illiterate or barely literate.  It is not uncommon to find a name spelled half a dozen ways or more.

From the library Underwood and Fountain went to what looked like an empty lot.  Fountain showed a map indicating the property lines of Sauney, Chambers, and someone named Armistead.  The properties in question were where they were standing.  He talked about how Chambers and Armistead were newcomers to the area and apparently were trying to push Sauney around.  Fountain had found a deposition in Bedford County (one assumes the county they were standing in, but it wasn't specified), given by a white man, stating that the cow which Sauney had "stolen" had wandered onto his property from Chambers' property.  Something that struck me in this scene was that Chambers and Armistead were identified on the map by their family names, but Sauney by his given name.  Usually calling someone by a given name shows less respect.  (I promise I do not mean any disrespect by using given names in this post!)

From all of these disparate pieces of information, including a comment that Sauney had been shot four times (we didn't see articles or evidence of all four times, however), Underwood decided that Sauney was a man who had lived by his own credo and could not be broken, and that maybe Chambers and the others had decided it would be easier to commit him rather than continue to fight him for the land.  Underwood was proud to have Sauney as his third-great-grandfather.  I would think if Sauney had been committed through that type of process, there should be court records to indicate it, so I'm a little suspicious.  Maybe there was something in the research we didn't get to see that supported the idea, but I can only judge by what they decided to include in the episode.

Underwood now went back to see Joseph Shumway, who had found information about Ada Belle White, who married Harry Royal.  Her parents in the marriage register were given as Thomas and Mary White.  The death certificate of Mary White showed that she died in 1917 in Lynchburg and was born in 1862.  Her father was listed as Delaware Scott.  Delaware Scott was in the 1860 census as a free person of color with Julia, William, and Judith Scott.  Family relationships were not stated in the 1860 census, but an educated guess based on everyone's ages was that Julia was Delaware's wife, William his son, and Judith possibly his mother.  Besides the family being free, it was also noted that Delaware owned real estate, which was definitely unusual.

At the Library of Virginia, Underwood met with Dr. Eva Sheppard Wolf, a historian and professor at California State University at San Francisco.  She had done extensive research on Delaware Scott and found him registered as a free Negro in 1849.  His mother was listed as Judith, he was 5'11" (the same as Underwood), and he was born free in 1823 (though in a later family tree diagram his birth was listed as 1824).  His mother had to have been free or he could not have been born free, as the child's status came from the mother.  We learned that there were thousands of free blacks in Virginia.  A 1782 law permitted slaves, with the exception of children and someone more than 45 years old, to be freed by deed or will.

A second registration for Delaware from September 5, 1852 again stated that Delaware was born free and mentioned a law from May 1, 1806.  Dr. Wolf discussed the law, which decreed that slaves freed after that date had to leave Virginia within one year, otherwise they could be captured and made slaves again.  Those people freed before May 1 did not have to leave.  By extension, Judith had to have been free before May 1, 1806, or the family could not have stayed in Virginia.

Dr. Wolf also found an 1850's deposition of some sort from a white man named Guy Lee.  He stated that he had known Amy Umbles for "60 years or upwards" and that she had been free.  He stated he also knew her two daughters, Judd and Tabby.  In the deposition he appeared to be vouching for the family in some way.  Wolf explained that Judd married Samuel Scott, and that they were the parents of Delaware Scott.  Later information showed Judd's name as Judith; no explanation was given in the episode about the change in her name.  Even given that people used variations of names at different times, the names here were different enough I thought this merited a comment explaining how they had determined Judith was Judd.

From here Underwood and Wolf went back to Lynchburg, to the Court Street Baptist Church, which the Scott family helped build.  Land deeds had been found showing that Samuel Scott was buying property in June 19, 1815.  He eventually owned about 200 acres, a pretty good amount for the time.  Tax records had also been found, which showed that Samuel owned two slaves in 1838 and 1839.  This, of course, threw Underwood for a loop.  Further research showed that in Samuel Scott's household in the 1840 census, only one slave was present, a male between 55-100 years of age.  Wolf said that a slave of that age was not someone who was working, so there had to be another reason to keep him.  She talked again about the law that slaves freed after May 1, 1806 had to leave Virginia; if someone remained a slave, he could stay.  She explained that most free black slave owners owned family members (she did not address if this was common only in Virginia because of the 1806 law or if it held for other states also).  Free people owned their family members so the family could stay together.  She hypothesized that the two slaves listed in the tax records were probably Samuel's parents, and that the person who died between 1839-1840 was likely his mother.

Underwood talked about how Samuel took care of his own and then said, "This is where the trail for the Scotts ends."  We have to assume that the show's researchers couldn't find any records for Amy Umbles or Samuel Scott stating when they were freed.  I'm wondering why the two slaves Samuel owned, theoretically his parents, didn't show up in any deeds or purchase transactions which might have named them.  How did Samuel come to own them?  He probably bought them from someone else, which should have generated a record.

Now we went from real research to the world of probabilities and smoke and mirrors.  Underwood met with Dr. Ken Chahine, the general manager of Ancestry DNA, in Lynchburg.  Chahine annoyed me from the start by using poor grammar when he said that Underwood's DNA "is comprised of" 74% African and 26% European roots.  The parts comprise the whole, not the other way around; you can say his DNA is composed of its parts, or you can say that 74% African and 26% European roots comprise his DNA.  Is good grammar really so difficult, guys?  Underwood's European roots were shown to be from what is now France, Switzerland, and Germany, and Underwood said he had always felt a connection with France.  His African roots indicated connections with the Bamoun, Yoruba, Igbo, and Bron tribes.  And the big revelation was that his closest DNA match was to a man named Eric Sonjowoh from Babungo, Cameroon.  Chahine said that they shared a male relative between the years 1600-1700.  The Legal Genealogist blogged about this also and gave some scathing comments about the pseudoscience that was expounded upon.  Suffice it to say that based on currently available science, they don't really know that Underwood and Sonjowoh are cousins; they're just guessing, and not really in an educated way.  Sure makes for good drama, though, doesn't it?

Something I immediately wondered is why a man in Babungo, Cameroon would possibly be in the Ancestry DNA database.  But this would be answered shortly.

Underwood went back to Petersburg to get his father and the two of them flew to Africa to meet their newfound "cousin" in Babungo.  The entire village came out, and it was obviously a major production that the Americans were coming.  When Underwood met Sonjowoh, it looked to me that they were using an interpreter who was not being shown on screen, because of the way they cut the camera shots.  Later Sonjowoh did speak in English, though he was subtitled throughout.  Underwood talked about how his ancestor had been separated from his family and now they were able to reunite.  (When, oh when, will it be discussed on these programs that the slave trade started because warring tribes were selling their enemies to the white traders?)  Then Underwood asked Sonjowoh why he was in the DNA database.  Hey, I wasn't the only person who wondered!  Apparently in 2005 a man came through the area offering to do DNA tests because blacks in America were trying to trace their family roots.  So seven years ago, someone was figuring out how to make money off of this in the future. It apparently was someone from Ancestry.com.

Underwood gave Sonjowoh a photograph of his family and invited him to come to the U.S. to visit.  He talked about how he had come from a long line of people with good values and how he was reuniting family members.  He also said that he was African because "Africa was born in us."

Overall the research in this episode was really good, and they found some amazing information.  But there were some huge gaps in what could have been sought that were not explained.  It is so frustrating to wonder whether it's the editing that's at fault or if the research is the problem.

And I almost forgot to include that this makes me three for three on my predictions.  Going by the teaser for the Reba McEntire episode, however, they're going somewhere overseas, so it looks as though I'll get my first ding next week.

7 comments:

  1. I have a comment from a reader who can't currently post directly: "Just read your recap of WDYTYA's Blair Underwood episode. Ditto, ditto, ditto! I thought they overshot but miles with the whole making it seem like they knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was from this particular tribe and area in Africa. There is only one company who can do that and it is not Ancestry.com. The company that can do that has a proprietary database that took 10 years to create and is not selling it or allowing others to use it."

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  2. Sawnee Early was my great great grandfather. There were a lot of stories surrounding him -- some true and some not. People wanted to think of him as "crazy" because he did not take any OF IT from anyone. He was skilled, he had land, and some money, and he could read and write. From what I've heard, Sawnee was a mixed breed. He was from what was passed down of Cherokee descent, African and White. His father may have owned his mother. I was always told his name was spelled Sawnee and it a Cherokee name and that he had quite a temper. Crazy? Yeah, crazy like a fox.

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  3. Not many people are fortunate enough to see one of their ancestors researched on broadcast television. Did the information they include in the program add to what you and your family already knew about Sawnee?

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  4. You are right about that. I was not watching the show, and
    just happened to walk through my living room when I heard
    Fanny Royall and Sawnee's names. That is when I looked around. So, I missed the 1st part of the show. I had to get it On Demand the following day. I am sure there is more information about Sawnee than was shown. It shed some light on things that I did not know. Sawnee's granddaughter, Josephine, was my grandmother. I had heard some pretty wild stories about Sawnee and he was the butt of jokes. Things like "you're crazier than Sawnee Early". I really felt very proud of the things that I did learn from the show, but I think there is more. I will find out.

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  5. There is material on the Web site (http://www.nbc.com/who-do-you-think-you-are/) that didn't make it into the final edited episode, plus extra online-only stuff. Maybe more information about Sawnee is in there.

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  6. I recently found out that Sawnee Early was my Great Great Grandfather. My grand father was John Wesley Early- his father was David Early the son of Sawnee Early

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  7. So your great-grandfather David Early was Fannie's brother? Very cool! Then that makes you Blair Underwood's third cousin once removed.

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