Almost everything in this episode revolved around research on one person: John Louis Brown, Richie's great-grandfather. The narrow focus gave us a more in-depth picture of one person than we usually get on the show. Apparently Richie's maternal grandmother had never talked about her father, and no one in the family knew anything about him.
Richie started his journey by going to Tuskegee, Tennessee, to visit his sister Deborah, the keeper of the family photos (shades of Rosie's O'Donnell's brother here). Again, it's always good to start family research by talking to other family members. Together they looked at several photographs, and then Deborah held up a manila envelope that she said had their grandmother's Social Security application (SS-5) in it, which she had not looked at yet. If she hadn't looked at it yet, how did she know that's what it was? Having ordered several of these over the years, I know that occasionally you'll get not a copy of the SS-5 but just a Numident printout, which tells you very little. Even if Deborah hadn't looked at it, obviously somebody must have, because otherwise it could have been a huge disappointment.
The great revelation on the application was that Richie's grandmother had listed both of her parents' names: Louis Brown and Volenderver Towson. (I was disappointed they didn't research Volenderver, because now I'm curious where that name came from. Google showed only 13 hits, and they all referred to Richie's family.) Because his grandmother was born in Nashville, Richie went there to begin his research. At the Nashville Public Library he asked genealogist Mark Lowe how to find information about his great-grandfather. Lowe had a marriage register at hand, and Richie looked for his grreat-grandparents' marriage. Instead of using an index (second episode we've seen that happen, grrr), he paged through a couple of years in the register looking for Brown entries. He found the entry, and his great-grandfather was listed as J. L. Brown. Then Lowe said, "I have another document." (How convenient!) It was a divorce complaint brought by Volenderver against Brown. In the complaint she stated that she had married Brown when she was 15 and he was 50. Lowe then produced the final decree, which granted the divorce.
Richie did the math and determined his great-grandfather was born about 1840 and his great-grandmother was born about 1875. He and Lowe discussed how very different Brown and Volenderver must have been, because Brown had been born a slave and Volenderver had not. I thought this was a rash assumption at the time, because there were free blacks prior to emancipation. This came up again later with an interesting twist.
Next Richie went to the Nashville Metropolitan Archive and spoke with Prof. Don Doyle. They found Brown in two city directories. In 1885 he was listed as SGA Knights of the Wise Men, and in 1880 he was Editor Knights of the Wise Men. The 1880 directory was literally falling apart; I really wish they had not shown it being used. Doyle suggested that Richie find an expert on fraternal organizations to determine what Knights of the Wise Men was. One of the amusing things about this segment was that Doyle could not stop grinning; it made it even harder than usual to suspend disbelief and pretend that Richie was just finding out about all this.
Prof. Corey Walker, the next researcher, explained that the Knights of the Wise Men had been a black fraternal organization that gave support to the community. Among other things, it provided insurance. Brown had been the Supreme Grand Archon (SGA) — the national leader. He also wrote the rules, laws, and regulations for the group. Unfortunately, the group suffered financially after a smallpox epidemic in 1891, when it had to pay out many death benefits, and soon after that the treasurer apparently disappeared with the remaining funds. Brown's marriage to Volenderver fell apart during this period. During this segment, when Richie was talking about the conclusions that could be drawn from the information he'd been given, he stumbled over his words a lot and it came out very oddly. It kind of seemed that he started to say more than he would have known if all the research hadn't been done already and then tried to backtrack.
Richie went next to Chattanooga, where the Knights of the Wise Men had been based. He spoke with historian LaFrederick Thirkill at the public library. Thirkill had a 1929 city directory ready, which showed that Brown was working as a caretaker at Pleasant Gardens Cemetery. Richie asked if there was any more information. Thirkill showed him a small booklet which had a biography and a photo of Brown. Then Richie asked, "What happened to him?" Thirkill produced Brown's death certificate. (I was thinking, "Gee, I wish all of my research questions could be answered that easily!") Richie looked at the death certificate and saw that Brown's father was listed as Morgan Brown, but for mother it said, "don't know." Then Richie said what is probably one of the best lines I have heard on this series: "Don't you just love records like that?"
Not surprisingly, since he was the caretaker there, Brown was buried at Pleasant Gardens. Thirkill took Richie to the cemetery, which appeared to be in very poor condition. The few tombstones that were shown were broken and/or falling over, and the grounds looked as though they had gone to seed. Brown was buried in the paupers' section, and Thirkill said that as far as he could tell there had been no stone.
Now, back to the question of whether Brown had been born a slave. Richie returned to Nashville and went to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, where he spoke with Dr. Ervin L. Jordan. Jordan had found Brown's application for a pension based on his service during the War between the States. Brown had stated that he served as a servant to his owner, Morgan W. Brown. Thinking it was too much of a coincidence that Brown's death certificate listed his father as Morgan Brown, Richie wanted to pursue this.
|Morgan W. Brown|
Richie returned to Los Angeles to share his discoveries with "two of my children" (the phrasing sounded very odd) and with his sister Deborah, who must have been flown out for the wrap-up. He was able to make some strong comparisons between his great-grandfather, who had grown up in somewhat of a protective bubble for the time period because of Dr. Brown's instructions, and himself and his sister, who had been protected by their mother and grandmother from learning about the racial problems going on around them while they were growing up. He also showed the picture of Morgan W. Brown and told them he was either John Louis Brown's father or half-brother. His children were pretty subdued, but his sister got very excited and emotional. I hope the Richies continue to pursue more family history research and maybe find answers to some of the lingering questions.