***SPOILER ALERT!!! The following contains a brief synopsis of the Who Do You Think You Are episode featuring singer/ songwriter Lionel Ritchie. Please do not read if you have not watched the show and intend to do so at a later date.
Dancing to the tunes of this croon-meister when I was a young woman, dating and newly married [hey, what can I say.... Mr. Ritchie has certainly aged better than I!] I fell in love to his "Three Times A Lady", and who can forget "Brick House"?
So, when I found out that he was to be featured on WDYTYA last evening, well... my blinders went on and all distractions were put outside my perimeter. I zoned in... totally! Who knew what talen was hidden in his ancestry???
Ritchie's career has spanned decades [yep... told ya I was old!]. Born in Tuskogee, Alabama he was raised on the Tuskogee campus where both his mother and his grandmother taught. Growing he knew everything was available to him. That he could accomplish anything he wanted, simply by trying and reaching for it.
Ritchie states his parents protected him from everything. Insolated them from the harsh realities of the civil rights uproars of the 50's and 60's. He was sheltered from segragation. Safeguarded against the cruelties and weariness of the times.
But, states Ritchie, the Commodores, his singing group, was able to take him out to see the real world. And what an eye-opening experience that was!
"I have no idea who the giants in my family are," said Ritchie. "My job is to find out the names, places and faces, so I can pass it on to my children."
That simple statement is the heart of all genealogy. It isn't about how many names we can add to our data base. It's about putting a name, a face, and a place to those giants in our family who came before us. And for those lessor individuals as well. And passing it on to our children. To our grandchildren. And to their children and grandchildren as well. That's why we all do this thing that we do!
But I digress. Mr. Ritchie simply hit the nail on the head!
So, Ritchie was off, from Los Angeles to Tuskogee, Alabama to meet with his sister, Deborah, who looks remarkably like him!, and who lives in the house that their grandmother lived in. The house that they were raised up in. Deborah is the keeper of all things in their family, and she was able to bring out photographs of Grandmother, Adelaide Foster.
Deborah had also ordered a copy of Grandma Foster's Social Security Application. She saw it the first time as she presented it to Lionel.
Adelaide states on her Social Security Application that her father's name was Louis Brown and that she had been born in Nashville, Tennessee.
And so, Ritchie sets off to Nashville. There he meets with Genealogist Mark Lowe at the Nashville Public Library.
They know that Grandmother Foster was born in 1893, so Lowe pulls the marriage book from the previous few years, including 1890. And there on 06 Apr of 1890 they discover that John Louis Brown brown married Grandmother Foster's mother, Valendever.
Ritchie wanted to know more, and Lowe produced a divorce complaint. In it the plaintiff [valendever] states she was 15 and her husband 50 when the couple were wed. Today we would have said simply that there were irreconcible differences. But at that time she states she "could not comply with his way of thinking".
In 1897 a judge found that she [Valendever] had been abandoned more than two years and her divorce was granted.
Prepared to accept that his great-grandfather was probably a scoundrel, at best, Ritchie is off to meet with Historian Don Doyle.
In an 1875 Directory they discover that J. Louis Brown is listed as an SGA in the Knights of the Wise Men.
In an 1880 city Directory he is listed as John L. Brown - Editor of Knights of Wise Men.
Ritchie is surprised, and yet pleased, to realize that as an editor they could deduce that Brown was a literate man. Not just a literate man, but an accomplished literate for the time!
"We know he is literate, so now we need to know more on this fraternal organization," stated Ritchie.
He was off to meet with Professor Corey Walker.
Walker states that the Knights of Wise Men helped to build and organize for professional black persons a group that was really the precursoe to what we now know as insurance. And it was to help issue in the Civil Rights Movement that would insure that blacks of America would receive equal treatment in this country.
By 1882, the Knights of the Wise Men had grown to 282 lodges across this country.
"So what did that SGA mean in the directory?" Ritchie asks.
It stood for Supreme Grand Archiv, or the national leader of the organization.
Ritchie's great-grandfather was the head over 282 lodges across the nationa. Not only was he the head, but he also wrote the rules, laws and orders of the organization!
Ritchie's great-grandfather helped to form a foundation that all blacks now stand upon today in America!
In 1885, the smallpox epidemic drained the funds of the Knights of the Wise Men when death benefits were paid out in huge amounts. The Knights of the Wise Men began to fall apart at the same time that Brown's marriage to Valendever was also crumbling. It would appear the strain on the one was visible in the strain of the other.
Following this, Brown moved to Chatanooga, so Ritchie was off to that city to discover what he could about Brown.
At the Chatanooga Public Library, Ritchie met with Historian LaFrederick Thrillkill.
Thrillkill brought out a 1929 city directory. Here a John L. Brown was listed, as the caretaker of Pleasant Garden Cemetery. Here at approximately 90 years of age, Brown was personally caring for a 22-23 acre cemetery.
Thrillkill brings out a rare book, Biography of Colored Persons in Chatanooga.
Here, Ritchie is confronted with a portrait of Brown. It is remarkable to note the same eyes and forehead as Ritchie now has! These prominent features are surely handed generations down.
Thrillkill also presents Ritchie with Brown's death certificate. It is from CHatanooga, Hamilotn County, Tenessee. Brown is buried in the very cemetery that he once cared for, Pleasant Garden Cemetery. The death certificate lists his father as Morgan Brown and his mother as Unknown.
So, Thrillkill takes Ritchie to Pleasant Garden Cemetery to present him to the final resting place of his great-grandfather.
Founded in 1890, Pleasant Garden Cemetery was the primary black cemetery in Chatanooga.
Upon arrival, it is quick to note the desolation and disrepair of this cemetery. It appears to have been totally abandoned.
Thrillkill takes Ritchie to an area of the cemetery where there are no stone monuments or markers. He explains this is the paupers section of the burial ground, and it is believed from what is stated on his death certificate, that Brown is buried in this section.
"This is not what I expected," Ritchie states, obviously moved to tears, as he removes a handkershief to wipe his eyes.
"It's moving. Extremely moving.....This is about as close to a spiritual awakening as I've had in my entire life."
Ritchie is left alone a few minutes to reflect over the area.
As genealogy researchers, when we've done this very same thing, we have been there. In the same spot Ritchie was. Shaken. Brought more aware than ever of the reality of the life of our ancestor. And also of the mortality we all must face. Sometimes this is the first glimpse researchers have of their own mortality. Of the thought that one day, I will be the one lying there, and my great-great-granchild will be the one standing above wondering about me!
Ritchie turns and asks, "What bout his early years? Was he born a slave or free?"
And so he is now off to the Tennessee State Archives, where he meets with Dr. Ervin L. Jordan.
Here Jordan brings out documentation that is earth shattering.
In 1924 Brown filed for pension. On this pension application, he states he was a servant during the Civil War. That he served from 20 May 1861 when he was enlisted by owner, Morgan W. Brown [the same name as listed as his father on his death certificate]. Which implies that his owner may also have been his father, and explains why his mother may not have been known.
Ritchie states, "The words owner are so far removed from 2011, it is simply unbelievable."
Ritchie now heads to the Nashville Public Library and meets with Professor Jaqueline Jones to see what is available on Morgan W. Brown.
Jones points out that there were in fact, two Morgan Brown's. The elder and the son. For purposes of keeping the two separate, she suggested using Dr. Brown for the father, and Morgan W. Brown for the younger.
Dr. Brown owned one of the largest slave plantations ion the area. In his 1839 Diary, Dr. Brown wrote - "This night Mariah had a boy child - named him Louis".
Ritchie postulated that Dr. Brown was the father of John Louis Brown. But Jones is quick to point out that we cannot be sure, as Dr. Brown was at this time 80 years of age. However, Dr. Brown's son, Morgan W. Brown was 39 at the time of the diary entry. So, while Dr. Brown may have indeed been J. Louis Brown's father, probability is more likely that Morgan W. Brown was the father.
In the August 1839 Will of Dr. Brown, [at this time Mariah would have been pregnant with her male child, Louis], he states that upon his death Mariah and her unborn child should be freed. A home provided for Mariah on the property [he even specified the place where he wanted her cabin to set], and that her child should receive two years of schooling.
Morgan W. Brown was the executor of the Will, and it would have been up to him to see the wishes of his father granted. But it is obvious that somewhere along the way, this man, John Louis Brown, did indeed receive an education, and one which far surpassed the two years Dr. Brown wad conferred upon him.
Jones then produces a photograph, taken from a painting, of Morgan W. Brown, most likely the father of John Louis Brown, or at the very least, his half-brother.
Ritchie is quick to point out that during a time of slavery and no rights for the black slaves, Dr. Morgan wanted to provide for Mariah and her unbron child, even before his birth. Something that was a rarity during this dark time in our nation's history.
Ritchie returns to L.A. where he is met by hs sister Deborah, and two of his children.
"I just thought this journey was interesting because I thought the family was keeping a secret from us all this time. Now I believe that Grandma Foster simply did not know the story of ehr father.
I am in awe of the strength of not only great-grandparents but of black America. I am standing on the shoulders of people who would simply not give up."
****Personal Note: While I was in awe of the entire broadcast, the facts revealed, and the story of Ritchie's family history, I am still disappointed in the lack of the research process shown by WDYTYA. It is my belief that they are leading individuals to believe that in a week or so, they can find out everything they can possibly find out about their ancestry.
As a genealogy researcher, I am quick to point out to potential clients that this is a process. We may find out a truckload of information regarding their ancestry. And we may not find out a single thing! Something, somewhere, surely marks the life of each of us. But locating, finding that something is literally finding the proverbial needle in the haystack!
And then there are those whose ancestors left quite the paper trail! Whose lives are littered with all sorts of valuable information just waiting for us to snatch up!
Recently I performed a genealogy research project for my dear brother-in-law, pro bono, and I put in well over 1,000 hours of research. And I have, literally, barely scraped what is available on his family! I am hoping it will encourage him to pursue the search even further on his own!
The point being... this search we do isn't magical. We may or may not find out anything about our ancestor. But if we do, it is generally a slow, and sometimes painful, process.
But one, that is definitely worth the pursuit!