Actor, Golden Globe Nominee, Director Blair Underwood has roots that run deep in Virginia. And tonight he comes face to face with those roots, and his African heritage.
Throughout Blair's twenty-five year career, his performances have been highlighted by his African-American image. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Desiree DeCosta and their children.
Blair has a strong pride in the heritage given him by his father, a 27-year Army veteran, who retired as a Colonel; and his grandfather, Ernest Underwood, Sr. who was a police officer.
"I'd love to find out the Underwood lineage, but I want to know about the maternal line as well," Underwood states.
So he started at his parents house in Petersburg, Virginia.
Blair's brother and mother could shed some light on his ancestry for him.
His maternal grandmother was Bessie, and her mother, Ada died when she was only 8-years old.
His grandfather, Harry Royal grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Blair's brother tells him, "Very few records are found for the African-American once you get to the Civil War, so once you hit that 150 year mark, the records are gone. They disappear."
Blair has performed a DNA test [I was never sure whether he did the test, or if he had his father to do it], and they would have to wait for those results for his patrilineal ancestry markers.
Blair's maternal great grandfather, Harry Royal and his great grandmother, Ada Belle White were the starting point. So he was off to the Library of Virginia in Richmond. Here he met with genealogist Joseph Shumway.
Shumway found a marriage record located in Lynchburg for his great-grandparents which showed their parents as Ben and Fanny Royal and Thomas and Annie White.
Next he found a marriage record for Ben Royal and Fanny Early. Fanny's parents were listed asd Maria and Sauney Early.
Shumway locates Sauney Early in the 1900 Census as an inpatient in the Central State Hospital, which was a mental institution. This was an all black institution established just after the Civil War ended.
Attempting to determine what had caused Sauney to be a patient in the mental hospital, they located Sauney in the 1880 Census, where he is a farm laborer, and in the 1870 Census where he is listed as a blacksmith. He is not located in the 1860 Census, and it is presumed he was a slave. And here they hit the proverbial "Wall" on Sauney.
So, Shumway and Blair determine to locate what caused such a significant decline in Sauney's mental capacity over the 30-year period noted, that he would go from being a blacksmith, to a patient in a mental hospital.
So, Underwood is now off to Lynchburg and the Jones Memorial Library where he meets with historian Dan Fountain.
In newspaper microfilm reels they locate on 12 Jan 1876 an article titled, "Sawney Early in Limbo". The article tells the account of Sauney Early stealing a cow, skinning it, and "salting" the beef, from a Mr. Chambers. Chambers went after Early, and shot at him. The load of shot hitting Early in the face. The account mocks Early as proclaiming himself the "Second Jesus" .
In another article, dated 23 Jan 1884, a man named Tardy shoots Early twice over cutting timber in Campbell County where both parties lived. The Campbell County Magistrate dismissed the case, and local blacks threaten violence over the event.
Fountain states he sees Early as a conjurer . This was someone who according to African culture, negotiated the boundaries between the Spirit world and that of the living. They often wore ostentatious clothing, and Early was described as wearing such in the first article that he and Underwood read.
Later, a record written as a testimony regarding Early was written by a Mr. Moore who stated that Sauney killed Chambers cow because Chambers cow kept wandering into his corn patch and eating his corn.
It seemed from this that the conclusion could be reached that Sauney Early's neighbor's, when not able to force, or shoot, him to give up his property and his rights to such, found it easier when he became an old man to simply have him committed to the state mental hospital.
Blair stated that Sauney was "...a man that could not be broken."
"I find great solace in that," he stated.
And now they went on to the White's.
Ada's parents were Thomas and Harriet White.
So back to Lynchburg and meeting with Joseph Shumway,
Shumway located Ada White's mother's death certificate. It listed her father as Delaware Scott .
So they visited Ancestry.com and located the Campbell County 1860 Census. There they found Delaware Scott listed as a mulatto. He was a "Cooper" by trade [barrel maker], and had personal property valued at $800. There was also a woman listed in the household named Judith and was 67 years of age. This was possibly his mother.
So, Underwood headed back to the Library of Virginia in Richmond. Here he met with historian Eva Sheppard Wolfe. She found in 1849 that Delaware Scott was listed as the son of Judith and he was born free in 1823 [his mother also was born free].
Wolfe found a statement from a neighbor in Amherst County in 1852 that stated he knew the Scott's for over 60-years and that they were free since before the 1806 law went into effect. [If freed after 1806, a free black had to leave the state within a year, until proclaimed the Emancipation Proclamation Act.]
Judith had married Samuel Scott . Samuel and his mother, Amy, had been born free, in Lynchburg.
So, back to Lynchburg Underwood went. To the Court Street Baptist Church, which was the first Black Church in the area.
Records were found in the church where Samuel Scott had bought land. He had purchased 200 acres. Tax records also showed this purchase.
Samuel Scott is shown in the 1850 Census as owning 2 slaves.
In the 1840 Census he had 1 male slave 55-100 years of age. Wolfe explains to Underwood that statistically most free blacks bought family members. So it was very possible that these 2 slaves were his parents.
Underwood stated, "It's empowering to know Samuel Scott took care of his parents, he took care of his own."
And the Scott trail ends here.
But on to Underwood's Dad's line, and the DNA results are in. Blair met with Dr. Ken Chahine, who explains that the test showed that Underwood's lineage was 74% African, as expected, and 26% European, which is usual for most people of African descent. The greatest amounts shown from France, Switzerland and Germany. Underwood was pleasantly surprised because he states he has always had an affinity and love for all things from France. He got engaged to his wife in Paris, and even named his daughter, Paris.
Chahine goes on to tell Underwood that they have located a "cousin", and that they share a common ancestor from about 1690 to 1700. The match is with Eric Sonjowoh, from Babungoo, Cameroon.
And so it was on to Africa with his father.
On seeing the people to meet them in Babungoo, Underwood stated, "Staggering, that's how this is, staggering!"
Blair and his father met Eric and his father.
"You make that connection for us," Underwood stated.
Eric stated that he had taken the DNA test in 2005, and didn't think there would ever be a match.
Blair gave Eric a photograph of all of the Underwood family in the US, and invited his Babungoo family to come and visit them.
"I will share with my children", stated Blair, all these values and of "the family coming full circle."
"I am African, not because I was born in Africa; but because Africa is born in us."
A profound statement. A profound feeling.
This was one of those WDYTYA episodes that I can enjoy again, and again!
Keep 'em coming NBC!
Be watching next Friday when singer/actress Reba McIntire discovers her family roots!