WDYTYA Episode 205: Lionel Richey

Morgan W. Brown, Possibly Lionel Richey's Great Great Grandfather
Morgan W. Brown: Lionel Richey's Great Great Grandfather?

Friday night, NBC aired the fifth episode of the second season of Who Do You Think You Are?, its flagship genealogy reality TV show.

The show is more compelling, with a quicker progression of facts and discoveries, and a focus on the emotional and very human reaction the celebrities experience as they discover, or are presented with genealogical facts. Lionel Richey is presented with a reality about his great grandfather, John Louis Brown. Brown appeared both to have abandoned his family and been sued for divorce by his wife. In addition to being apparently about 35 years the senior of his wife, he was also a man who was born a slave, educated and freed, and who was the leader of a national black fraternal organization, the Knights of Wise Men.

It’s quite an interesting and powerful show. Richey is confronted with the legacy of slavery, but also with incredible strength of purpose to raise former slaves to equality of station. He may also have discovered an ancestral connection with a white slaveholding family.

Professional genealogists will continue to quibble about the way documents are handled (usually without gloves, and with much more contact than is warranted), as well as how, every time we turn around a researcher says, “I have another document.” However, realistically, none of these documents is being seriously damaged, and as for the suddeness of the discoveries, this is television. In order to keep audiences interested, there must be quick results. There are fewer than 45 minutes available to complete the show. But I still think that a simple title card at the end could give a sense of the amount of research required to produce the show.

I was glad to see J. Mark Lowe featured as one of the researchers. He is a well-known professional genealogist and lecturer, who lives in what we call “Western North Carolina,” but which a lot of other folks now call Tennessee…. He’s a friend of mine, a top-notch researcher, and an amazing raconteur. Hopefully, Mr. Richey got some time to chat with Mark with the cameras and time pressure off.

Until the 18th of September 2011, the show is available in its entirety on the NBC website. I have also embedded it below.