I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was called to a meeting in the Library’s Special Collections reading room on a busy day in September 2014. A certain amount of skullduggery and mystery surrounded the parlay with staff from a yet-to-be-identified TV show about genealogy. Already other Library of Virginia staff members had unearthed a set of documents that related to a certain Benjamin Sharpe from a remote section of Virginia. I was to provide context with a few of my colleagues. The meeting went smoothly enough—a free-ranging discussion of the election of 1800, life in a remote section of Virginia, and slavery in the Appalachian region. Did I know a historian who could speak on camera with the show’s star for filming? Certainly. I recommended a few names and returned to my work.
A few days later the e-mail arrived. Would I be the foil for the unnamed actor? I was surprised and flattered, as I recall, but also a bit wary of the assignment. Having some familiarity with shows of this type, I felt hesitant. Such TV episodes, like a movie or any other kind of storytelling, must have a narrative arc. Having been a “talking head” for many documentaries and short media pieces, I realized that my part would be boiled down and edited to serve that narrative. I do the … read more »
“All eastern Virginians are Shintoists under the skin. Genealogy makes history personal to them in terms of family. Kinship to the eighth degree usually is recognized.”
—Douglas Southall Freeman, “The Spirit of Virginia,” in Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion
Those born in Virginia (or those who have lived here for any length of time) will either nod approvingly or roll their eyes at this quip by the famed historian and biographer Douglas Southall Freeman. The mind easily turns to Virginians bowing down at the sacred altars of their ancestors. Being a New Englander with a long lineage in this country, I can appreciate the sentiment. My own father at one time presided over the Kimball Family Association, which, because of Brigham Young’s lieutenant Heber Kimball from Vermont, likely has as many members in Utah as in New England. And we know that genealogy is serious business there!
But it was not always so. America’s complicated relationship with family history stems from our founding, when the new country’s leaders consciously threw off the chains of hereditary rights and aristocracy. George Mason asserted this sentiment in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776: “That no Man, or Set of Men are entitled to exclusive or separate Emoluments or Privileges from the Community, but in Consideration of public Services; which not being descendible, neither ought the … read more »
Dusty documents and grimy ledgers get a dose of Hollywood glamour as the third season of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? continues tonight, February 24, at 8 P.M. with Petersburg native Blair Underwood. The Event and In Treatment actor embarks on a personal journey of self-discovery as experts trace his family tree uncovering hidden stories and family secrets. During tonight’s episode, Underwood uncovers a branch of his family tree that shows a line of free African Americans in Virginia stretching back to the 1860s, and he even discovers that one ancestor was a slave owner. Underwood traveled here to the Library of Virginia, where part of the episode was filmed, to view the Campbell County Free Negro and Slave Records and the Amherst Free Negro Register.
If watching Blair Underwood uncover his roots inspires you to start researching your own family tree, the Library of Virginia is a great place to start. In addition to our collections that contain a wealth of Virginia records, we offer a guide on how to begin your genealogical research and one on the genealogical resources available here at the library. If you’re not in the mood to leave your couch, you can get started on your research tonight by tuning in to NBC WWBT channel 12 from 5:00 to 6:30. Library staff will be on air … read more »
Genealogists, take a break from the microfilm machine and those dusty documents! Find a seat on the couch and get ready to see your passion brought to life on the small screen.
The second season of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? begins this Friday, February 4, at 8 P.M. As you may know, each episode of the show follows a celebrity whose family tree is researched by experts – how fabulous it is to be a celebrity! The celebrities discover their hidden family stories and secrets as they travel to the archives that house their family records and the places where their ancestors lived. One episode last season featured Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and revealed his family’s connection to Mecklenburg County, Virginia. See the episode here. Smith traveled to the county courthouse in Boydton to view records there and visited historic Boyd Tavern across the street.
This season promises more connections to Virginia with celebrity participants Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Rosie O’Donnell, Steve Buscemi, Kim Cattrall, Lionel Richie, Vanessa Williams, and Ashley Judd.
If you are inspired to begin tracing your ancestry after watching the show, the Library of Virginia is a great place to start. Our collection contains a wealth of Virginia records that cannot be found anywhere else. We also provide free access to Ancestry.com … read more »