Who Do You Think You Are?: Laverne Cox Discovers Freedmen in Her Family Tree

By Diane Haddad
Who Do You Think You Are? Laverne Cox
Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar shows actress Laverne Cox a voter register naming her freedman ancestor on “Who Do You Think You Are?”

As an actress and an openly transgender woman, Laverne Cox has achieved a lot of firsts. She’s the first openly transgender woman nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in acting (for her work on the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black”), first to win a Daytime Emmy as an executive producer, and first to be on the cover of TIME magazine.

Now, she’s also the first to appear as a guest on “Who Do You Think You Are?”


Personal history and family history on “Who Do You Think You Are?”

I was excited to be able to watch this episode! I don’t have cable, so I can’t watch TLC’s “locked” episodes (even with the TLC Go app).  But this one is unlocked, at least so far. You can watch it here.

Episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are?” tie past to present by highlighting a theme that runs through the celebrity guest’s family tree. In this episode, Cox’s Alabama freedman ancestor navigated the tumultuous post Civil War-era to acquire land and exercise his new freedom to vote. More recently, her grandmother was active in African-American voter drives and John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. The show draws parallels between this history and Cox’s advocacy for African-Americans and those in the LGBTQ community.


Researching slaves and freedmen

Cox’s third-great-grandfather Bolen Banks/Matthews (he used both surnames at different times), born a slave in 1825, registered to vote in Dallas County, Ala., in 1867.

Laverne Cox Who Do You Think You Are
“Who Do You Think You Are?” guest Laverne Cox searches for her third-great-grandfather’s name on an 1867 Dallas County, Ala., voter register. The record is in tatters, but the names survived.

Another record shows Bolen brought his son, Willis, to register in 1875.

The 1870 census lists Bolen as a landowner, a rarity for freedmen. Court records show that he secured loans each year. Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar points to this as evidence of Bolen’s social currency. Others perceived him as someone you could lend money to and have it paid back. “For Bolen, and for millions of others who are recently freed, debt was the only way to survive,” Dunbar says.

The 1891 will of Virginia Matthews, Bolen’s former slaveowner, left him the use (but not ownership) of her land.


Resources for African-American genealogy

Records of the Freedmen’s Bureau were helpful in tracing Bolen in the post-slavery years. You can search and view Freedmen’s Bureau records free on the FamilySearch website.

Researchers initially connected Bolen to the Matthews family using this eight-step strategy for tracing freedmen back into slavery. This can work if the freed slave adopted his or her former owner’s last name. It involves using federal censuses to identify nearby white families with the same last name as the freedman. Then, you’d search 1850 and 1860 slave schedules for those families’ lists of slaves.

Slave schedules name the owner and gave slaves’ ages and genders. You’d have to find matches to your ancestor’s sex and age, then confirm this is your ancestor using the slaveowner’s records. In Bolen’s case, the slaveowner’s probate records included an estate inventory that named his slaves among his possessions.

You can learn more about African-American genealogy research from the best! Expert instructor Angela Walton-Raji presents our African-American Genealogy Research Essentials video class, which you can download now from the Family Tree Shop.

Laverne Cox on Who Do You Think You Are?
Actress Laverne Cox brings her mother to the site where their freedmen ancestors registered to vote in Cahawba, Ala.