We’re at Ancestry.com’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” viewing party, watching the season finale with a few hundred of our best genealogy friends at the National Genealogical Society conference.
Here are a few of them:
First, we hear some behind the scenes info on the season from Anastasia Tyler, who coordinated the research for the show:
- 6,300 hours of research went into the series
- An average of more than 425 hours of research went into each show
- Researchers did preliminary work on more than 20 trees, then whittled that down to 7 due to the celebrities’ schedules
- A core team of 30 genealogists worked on the episodes, aided by scads of others who visited archives, did record lookups and more.
- Places the crew researched around the world that didn’t make it into the show include Germany, England, Ukraine, Russia, Ireland, Korea and Canada
- Repositories visited included the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society and other state archives, local courthouses, public libraries, churches in New York City and France, and synagogues in Ukraine.
- Filming all seven episodes took 9.5 months
Curtains up and the show begins. Director Spike Lee says his mother’s side of the family is a mystery. This show starts with Lee visiting his mom, but this episode is different from previous ones: He’s at her gravesite. Jacqueline Shelton Lee died of cancer when Spike was 19.
His grandmother “Momma” put him through college and helped him start his career. She died at 100 in 2006. Lee says he “squandered” opportunities to ask her about her family. “Being a filmmaker, I should’ve been filming her … you take stuff for granted” and let yourself believe that the person will be around forever.
Momma’s grandmother Lucinda Jackson was born into slavery. Lee looks for her death records in Dublin, Laurens County, Ga., with help from African-American history expert Melvin Collier. From Georgia death records on Ancestry.com, we learn Lucinda died in 1934.
Next is an obituary search in newspaper microfilm—a successful one. From Lucinda’s obituary, Lee is surprised to learn Lucinda had three sons, Isaac, Phillip and Wilson. But there’s no mention of the boys’ father.
Phillip’s death certificate reveals the answer: His father’s name is Mars Jackson. Spike recalls that when he called Momma to ask for a character’s name for his film She’s Gotta Have It, she suggested Mars.
Next, Lee heads to the Georgia State Archives to meet historian Mark Schultz. They search the 1880 census on Ancestry.com and find a Mars, a farmer in Twiggs County. The family has all the right first names and ages, but they’re under the name Woodall. Schultz says this could be the name of a former slaveowner.
On to earlier censuses, now searching for the slaveowning Woodall family. In the 1860 census, they find the only white Woodall family in the county. This is likely Mars’ owners. Woodall’s 1860 slave schedule, which enumerates slaves by age (not by name), probably includes Lee’s ancestors.
Because Mars was listed as a farmer in 1880, Schultz and Lee look in the 1880 agricultural census. They discover Mars owned land—80 acres of tilled land, plus 50 of wooded land, plus 75 acres of “other” land. Schultz says that when positive relationships existed between former slaves and owners, the freedman may have used those ties to get a start. Perhaps Woodall lent Mars the money to purchase the land.
Lee uses a map to find the acreage Mars owned. He puts on his Mars necklace from the film. “It all started here,” he says. He digs up some Georgia red clay and puts it in a TJ Maxx bag to take with him.
Now we look for Lucinda, starting with her death certificate. Her parents were Wilson and Matilda Griswold. In the 1870 census, Matilda, listed as mulatto, is a cook living with an Ebenezer and Eliza Grier in Griswoldville. There’s no Wilson.
Genealogist Daina Berry presents a contract for several slaves, including Wilson, to be hired out to work in a Samuel Griswold’s cotton gin factory. Berry points out that the fact that the slaves were named means they’re probably highly skilled. Another document (we don’t hear what it is) says that in 1865, Gen. Sherman’s troops destroyed the business and carried away five “negro” men.
Did Wilson go with Sherman? Was he killed? We head to Griswoldville, which has a plaque where the factory once was. The cotton gin company’s plant had been converted to a pistol factory to supply the Confederate Army—hence Sherman’s attack. Local historian Bill Bragg drives up with some records and a pistol that was manufactured at the plant. It was the biggest pistol manufacturer in the Confederacy. “My great-great-grandfather built this pistol…” Lee says. “Which was used to kill the people who were coming to liberate him,” finishes Braggs. The irony.
We see a picture of a grim Samuel and Louisa Griswold in 1860. Lee wants to know if he could be related to James Griswold, perhaps through Matilda, who was listed as a mulatto in the census. Certainly, Bragg says, it’s a possibility.
Berry says that Griswold’s daughter Eliza married Ebenezer Grier, and Matilda was probably gifted to her. Often, children of owners and slaves were sent away to another household. Circumstantial evidence points to Griswold as Matilda’s father.
Berry finds a descendant of the Griswold family on ancestry.com. Guinevere Greer is a great-great-granddaughter of Wilson Griswold, so she may be a third cousin twice removed to Lee. They sit on the couch and have a conversation. What do you say to someone whose ancestor your ancestor owned? You should definitely watch this part of the show. Watch the whole thing, but definitely this part.
“My grandmother, maybe she knew a lot, but she didn’t tell us because we didn’t ask,” says Lee. “I hope my children know they’re on the shoulders of great people.”
I thought this was the most educational episode because it seemed to offer more explanation about the records we were seeing. This episode also has a lot of humor in it–Spike lee’s a funny guy.