“Who Do You Think You Are?”: Blair Underwood

“Who Do You Think You Are?”: Blair Underwood

I caught last night's “Who Do You Think You Are?” Blair Underwood episode on Hulu (we went to my nephew's basketball game). This was my favorite episode so far. More of it took place in libraries and archives than the previous episodes, with lots of looking at records and...

I caught last night’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” Blair Underwood episode on Hulu (we went to my nephew’s basketball game).

This was my favorite episode so far. More of it took place in libraries and archives than the previous episodes, with lots of looking at records and historians guiding us through their meaning. Second, the profound impact this research had on Underwood really came across.

After taking an Ancestry.com DNA test to help trace his paternal side (which his brother Frank has researched in genealogical records—I wonder if Frank has read Family Tree Magazine?), Underwood crisscrossed Virginia from Richmond to Lynchburg and back (and forth again) to trace two branches on his mom’s side.

Among his discoveries in censuses and registers of free “negroes” was a free African-American ancestor, Samuel Scott. Scott owned two slaves, who we learn were probably his own parents.

Due to an 1806 law regarding freed slaves, the parents would’ve had to leave the state or risk being sold back into slavery if Samuel had not purchased them. This shows how important historical context can be when you’re interpreting historical records about your family.

(PS: This website has more information and some transcribed indexes of free African-Americans in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.)

In another branch was an ancestor, Sawney Early, who was institutionalized in the 1900 census. From newspaper articles, we learn about Sawney’s disputes with white neighbors who’d arrived after the war. Sawney was described as wearing odd clothing and believing himself to be the “second Jesus.” He shot a man’s cow that had wandered into his corn, and was himself shot several times. A historian explains Early was likely a “conjuror”—a spiritual leader and healer in slave communities.

At the end, the DNA test results come in and Underwood’s Y-DNA is a match to a man in Cameroon, so he and his father visit their African cousins. The cousin said he took a DNA test in 2005 for a project to connect people in Cameroon to families in America (I wonder if this was the National Geographic Genographic Project).

A couple of things I want to point out: The DNA testing was very appealing and made it look easy, but I wonder what the chances are of finding such a clear match.

And the show seemed to give up when Sawney Early couldn’t be found in the 1860 census, when he was probably a slave. There are strategies to trace slaves using the 1850 and 1860 censuses, even though they’re not named, and you also can use resources such as wills and estate records and African-American genealogy websites such as these. (Perhaps the researchers tried these methods and came up empty-handed.)

The episode showed that African-Americans can have success tracing their roots in records and through DNA, and it showed how meaningful the journey can be.

Related resources from Family Tree Shop:

Related Products


Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


  1. This episode was also my favorite so far. They showed as much of the research as they did the star’s face! I do wish they would say specifically where they found the information. Happy for Blair.

  2. You are correct that before the 1870 census, slaves could often be found by first name in wills and such. But after the Civil War, slaves routinely took the surname of their former owner, so I was surprised a search wasn’t made for a slave-owning family named &quot;Early&quot; in the 1850 census.

    A book called &quot;Somerset Homecoming&quot; is a wonderful guide to how the census &quot;brick wall&quot; didn’t stop the author from identifying the slaves of an entire plantation through not only wills, but bills of sale at the courthouse. She was then able to track their descendants for a long overdue reunion.

  3. And there are some other great books, like the &quot;Washingtons of Wessington&quot; and anything by Dr. Henry Louis Gates.
    I used the &quot;free black&quot; strategy learned from the Blair Underwood episode while researching for a friend today. Her mulatto ancestress was in the 1840 through 1860 censuses as a single woman/landowner with several children; as well as in a NY Passenger list in 1853, traveling to Panama!
    Those who I believe to be her children were in GA in the 1860 through 1880 censuses as mulattoes — so they must have been free, too. One woman in 1860 had a 12-year-old slave….
    I will have to see if GA had the same law as VA.

  4. Thanks for mentioning that there were more things that could have been done beyond the 1860 census and terminating the lines there. Also, there should have been legal records somewhere giving the free lines their freedom. I would have liked them to have pursued that. The family names may have been clues to previous owners. I just wondered why they didn’t do more tangible research before jumping to the DNA link.