“Who Do You Think You Are?”: Alfre Woodard’s African-American Slave Ancestry

By Diane Haddad

Today, our “Who Do You Think You Are?” blogger Shannon Combs Bennett walks you through last night’s riveting episode featuring actor Alfre Woodard:

Sunday’s episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” was an amazing journey to see—a not-to-be-missed episode. It was the first show in several seasons to focus on African-American genealogy research—specifically, Woodard’s enslaved great-grandfather.

Woodard’s paternal grandfather, Alex Woodard, died when her father was three. She knew nothing concrete about that side of the family and she wanted to take this journey for her father because, she said, “family is life.”

She quickly discovered in US census records that her great-grandfather Alex (also called Alec) Woodard was of the right age—born about 1841 in Georgia—to have been a slave. It’s common in African-American genealogy research for entire lines to come to a screeching halt because of a scarcity of records identifying slaves. After using this strategy to discover Alex’s slaveowner, a Georgia man named John Woodard, the show’s historical and archival experts (one is shown with Alfre Woodard in the image above) guided Woodard in using the owners’ tax and estate records to trace Alex in several states.

Our Slave Ancestors Research Guide describes these and other records that can help you shed light on the names and lives of African-American slave ancestors. You’l find in-depth help and examples in the digital book A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors.

Seeing her ancestor listed as a 10-year-old boy among John Woodard’s estate was an emotional experience for Woodard. Driving to the land her great-grandfather worked, she turned onto Woodard Road. She walked the land barefoot, as her ancestor likely did.

Freedmen’s Bureau and other post-slavery records—including tax assessments and deed books—revealed that this man, born a slave, eventually became a land owner in Louisiana. Woodard was proud to learn that in 1867, Alex paid a poll tax of $1, a day’s wages at the time, so he could register to vote. Unfortunately, an agricultural depression forced him to sell some of his land. The archivist compared his economic situation to buying a house just before the housing market crashed in 2007.

Tax records can reveal your ancestors’ financial successes and hardships year over year. The video class Using Tax Records to Trace Your Ancestors or our Tax Records Workbook guide are helpful with these underused resources.

The last record Woodard saw was a deed showing Alec and his wife Lizzie selling their land in Louisiana to an Arron Stell for the surprisingly low price of $35 for 80 acres. The researcher revealed that Arron was Lizzie’s brother.

Next Sunday won’t being a regular “Who Do You Think You Are?” show. Instead, tune in to TLC at 9/8c for a special “Into The Archives” episode (“archives” referring to the show’s video archive, not historical archives) that’ll highlight viewers’ favorite stories and never-before-seen footage. Sounds interesting!