Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Jerome Bettis

The celebrity for this week's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was Jerome Bettis, the great running back who played for the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The introduction talked about his family and his parents, Johnnie and Gladys Bettis.  Bettis was close to his parents, and they managed to attend every one of his games during his 13-year pro football career.  He had learned a lot about the Bettis side of the family from his father, who died in 2006, but did not know much about his mother's side.  He wanted to go back as far as possible and then share the information with her.  Then came our foreshadow comment:  Bettis mentioned slavery and said, "If we encounter dark moments, so be it."  So now that we knew where we were headed ....

Bettis began with the "logical first step" of talking with his mother, Gladys Bougard Bettis, and uncle, Abram "Butch" Bougard.  He traveled to Detroit, where they and most of his family are from.  Gladys and Butch's parents were Mary Christine and Abram Bougard.  Abram's parents were Ruby and Burnett Bougard.  Family stories said that Burnett had been a rabble rouser (which Bettis consistently seemed to pronounce as "rebel" rouser, confusing me for a while) and that he had disappeared and abandoned the family.

After this segment, a family tree was shown with the information Bettis had learned to that point.  For some reason, all the women whose maiden names were not known (and none of them were learned during this episode, either; guess those female lines just weren't important) were shown with the last name Bougard.  I know in previous episodes women whose maiden names were unknown were shown with just their given names, so I don't understand why the show changed it for this episode.  It runs counter to standard genealogical practice and could have confused some viewers.

Then Bettis said, "Let's go to and see what we can learn."  (I think what bothers me the most about these product placement moments is the equating of with research, instead of the fishing expeditions that these celebrities use it for.)  Somehow Bettis managed to find a record for a Burnell Beaugard who died in Paducah, Kentucky (and apparently no other records for him).  Paducah was the right place for the family, and "Burnell"'s father was listed as Abe, which fit with the next two generations naming sons Abram.  Bettis commented that the death certificate had some great clues, but it also raised some questions, such as why did the family story say that Burnett had disappeared if he hadn't gone anywhere?  Gladys and Butch added a little bit more information:  The family had had three children, their father and two girls.  Their father hadn't talked much about his father.  Then Bettis headed off to Kentucky.

At the McCracken County Courthouse (Paducah is in McCracken County), Bettis met with Gerald Smith, an associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky.  He had found a record showing that Ruby "Beaurgard" divorced Burnett "Beaugard" August 26, 1921.  A short discussion about the fluidity of spelling included a comment that census takers and other government officials often intentionally misspelled the names of blacks.  (I don't know how true that is, but I have not found it to be the case in my own research.  I think it imputes too much deliberate action on the part of civil servants who really just don't care, particularly at a time when very few people obsessed about consistent spelling.)  The divorce action stated that Ruby and Burnett had married about 1919 and included a deposition saying that the cause of their separation was that "the man just went off and left her and she could have the house."  Well, that was certainly clear then, wasn't it?

Bettis talked about how this was yet another story about Burnett that indicated he was a rebal or someone who got into trouble.  He asked Smith if there were any records from the criminal court or the police, to which Smith responded, "I haven't found anything," a tacit admission that the research had already been done before Bettis arrived.  He then suggested Bettis look in newspapers for more information about Burnett.

Bettis headed over to the McCracken County Public Library, where he spoke with Berry Craig, a Kentucky historian and professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College.  Craig said, "This library has an Internet connection to the Library of Congress," which was his way of saying that they could call up the Web site for Chronicling America, just like any other computer with an Internet connection can do.  (I don't know why they didn't credit the site, as it isn't a pay site in competition with Ancestry, but maybe they don't like the government allowing people to view newspapers online for free when Ancestry charges.)  Bettis found an article in the Paducah Daily Sun from April 6, 1897 with the name "Beauregard" (no explanation of why he searched for that spelling) and then, for no discernible reason, got off the computer and went to microfilm.  There was no reason for him to do that; the paper is digitized and available for free on the Chronicling America site.  As you can see, the name Beauregard is even highlighted!  The only thing I can think of is that they used Chronicling America as a finding aid because it's searchable and then went offline because it wasn't an Ancestry site.  Whatever the reason, it's a horrible example of how to use resources.

The short notice says that Burnett swore out a complaint against his boss for injuring him.  Craig explained that this was a dangerous move for Burnett because blacks were still not considered equals and lynchings were common in the area.  Two days later, on April 8, 1897, the same newspaper published a second notice saying that the claim had been dismissed because the "evidence showed that the darkey advanced in a threatening manner towards Mr. Little."  It was pretty impressive that Burnett could and was willing to swear a warrant against a white man, but he unfortunately couldn't beat the odds in the Jim Crow South.

Bettis commented that Burnett was a bit of a rebel and strong willed (talk about an understatement!) and that it was amazing what information he had been able to find.  Then he wanted to look for something about Burnett's father Abe.  This time the last name was spelled Bogard, but an item in the Paducah Sun of October 8, 1902 under the header of "Suits Filed" explained that Abe had filed against the Illinois Central in circuit court "for $2,000 damages for injuries received by being struck by" a train while walking along the track.  Craig said that would be about $48,000 today.  It would have taken a lot of guts for anyone to go up against a big company at that time, particularly a black man in Kentucky.  Bettis wanted to find out more.

He headed to Frankfort to the Kentucky State Archives to look at circuit court records with Jennifer Frazier, the Kentucky State Law Librarian.  Bettis wanted to know why Abe had been on the railroad track and whether he had been successful in his suit.  Frazier brought out original court documents and had Bettis put on white conservator's gloves.  One item was the petition from Abe for the suit, which was signed with an X and the notation "his mark", indicating he was illiterate.  Bettis was astonished and upset (which really wasn't entirely fair, because most people in this country in 1902, black, white, whatever, were illiterate).  Illinois Central was a large railroad with lots of money and lawyers.  Frazier explained that the lawyers who had taken Abe's case, Hendrick and Miller, were probably populists who had not charged for their services.  The trial would have been by an all-white jury.  The railroad claimed that Abe had been trespassing; Abe's response was that he had previously been an employee and had been invited to come talk about work.  At this point the program cut to a commercial, but I was pretty sure he had won the case (good old TV logic again), and when we returned I discovered I was right.  The jury found for the plaintiff and awarded Abe $375.  The award was equivalent to about a year's pay, but it would probably have been more if the victim had been white.

Bettis said he never would have thought something like this could happen and declared that Abe was a man of integrity.  (Nice sentiment, but nothing in the description of the circumstances leads to that conclusion.)  He asked if there was anything else about Abe, and Frazier said yes, but in Paducah.  So Bettis headed back there.

This time he met with John E. L. Robertson, listed as Professor Emeritus of University of Kentucky CCS, which apparently is another way of saying University of Kentucky Community College System, but it sure sounds better the first way, doesn't it?  Apparently Mr. Robinson is also a railroad historian, and in the course of some of his research he had talked with people who remembered Abe and his case against Illinois Central.  The fact that Abe had won had resonated with the other workers.  The two men walked outside to look at a steam locomotive of the type that hit Abe.  This whole segment was really nothing but a lot of fluff and filler.  It made me wonder if they hadn't been able to find enough information and had to pad to fill the episode.

Bettis talked about how he was still curious about Abe being illiterate and whether he had been born a slave.  Somehow that led him to go back to (I don't now why, as it is not known as a site with a lot of slave records).  I thought he typed in the name Abe Bogard, but he managed to find the death certificate for Abe Bougard from November 4, 1925.  The certificate has "don't know" for date of birth and age at death "about 72", which would make his birth around 1853, near the end of slavery.  His father was listed as Jerry and mother as Liza, both without last names.  Jerry caught Bettis' attention because it is a common nickname for Jerome, his given name.  He then said, "I've got some work to do."  During this segment it was very nice to see Bettis actually writing notes.

He now headed to Murray, Kentucky to meet John Hardin, a professor of history at Western Kentucky University.  Somehow the leap was made that the lack of last names for Abe's parents on the death certificate meant that they were slaves without entertaining any other possibility.  Then Hardin said that slaves would typically take the names of their slave owners, which current scholarship has begun to indicate is not true; I have read that probably more than half of former slaves did not use their former owners' names.  Accurate information notwithstanding, because Hardin had said this, we could be assured that in this instance it would be the case, and he suggested Bettis look for records of a Beauregard family.  He brought out a book of an index to slave owner wills (there's really such a specific index?).  An entry for Joseph Bogard indicated a will on page 484.  Going to that book, the will from Calloway County included a Negro boy Jerry and a girl Eliza.  This confirmed that Bettis' great-great-grandparents were slaves.  The will had been signed in May 1841.

Now it was time to look for Abe in documents.  Hardin explained about slave dower lists, which were reports of slaves women had inherited.  Every year owners had to report their list of slaves.  Mary Bogard, the widow of Joseph, reported owning a male named Jerry aged about 40, a female named Eliza aged about 35, and a boy named Abram aged about 4.  There were dollar signs next to Jerry and Eliza, indicating that they had some value.  The three appeared together in the lists until about 1860.  That was the year Mary died and her property was divided.  The estate was sold at public auction.  An H. A. Bogard bought Jerry and Eliza, and someone named F. A. Hand bought Abram, then listed as 10 years old (this would put his birth about 1850, by the way), for $1,563.

The details about his ancestors' slave history had been disturbing enough for Bettis, but he became much more upset at the family being split apart, thinking as a son and a parent.  He couldn't imagine what it would have been like to have been separated from his family when he was 10.  This would be a traumatic experience for anyone.

Hardin and Bettis went to visit the property in Calloway County where Abe had lived until he was 10.  Bettis said that he was standing on the same spot that his great-grandfather had stood, and that he understood what they had gone through, but there really wasn't anything there to see.  If it had been a farm, it didn't look like it.  It pretty much looked like an empty field.

Bettis wondered what had happened to Abe in 1865, when emancipation came, and whether he had been reunited with his parents.  Hardin came prepared to answer that question (no surprise there) and had a copy of a page from the 1870 census.  In Graves County, Kentucky he had found Jerry Beaugard with Mary, Abram, Frances, and Elizabeth.  (Abram was listed as 22 years old, which would put his birth at about 1848.)  It's impossible to tell from the census if Mary is a second wife or a daughter, but it does appear that Abram was reunited with his father.  Nothing was said about what might have happened to Eliza.  Bettis talked about how being sold at the age of 10 helped shape Abe's life.

From Calloway County Bettis returned to Detroit to share the information he had found with his mother and uncle.  He talked about how Abe and Burnett had been strong men and that he was proud to have them in his family.

I was again disappointed with the slave research.  Instead of using or even mentioning Freedmen's Bureau records, the show went to the old standard "slaves used their former owners' names."  I'm sure the researchers had an entertaining time with the multiple spellings of the name.  And no mention was made of looking in sales transactions to try to learn where Jerry and Eliza had been before they were owned by the Bogards.  Did they look in these places and not find any answers?

I didn't see any of the "you don't have to know what you're looking for" ads this time.  Maybe they've retired them?  The ad for next week's episode again didn't say who the celebrity would be, though by going to the Web site it was easy to learn it will be Helen Hunt.  I don't understand why they aren't announcing it anymore.  Maybe they're trying to drive traffic to the Web site?

I'm still golden on my predictions, and it's looking good for Helen Hunt.  The blurb on the WDYTYA Web site says Hunt "discovers ancestors instrumental in the growth of America", and I expected her research to look at how her ancestors were part of significant events in U.S. history.


  1. I watched this episode and pretty much concluded that it was more fluff than fact. While I don't doubt that there was some legitimate research done, I'm not prepared to completely buy into how it was acquired. Also, I agree that a lot of the conclusions drawn were indeed, "nice sentiments".

    1. Thanks for stopping by. It is unfortunate that so many of the shows come off looking thin on facts because of the wild leaps of logic they make.

  2. Hello, thank you for this write up. I recently discovered my great-great-great grandfather was a brother to Abe- I knew we had some cousins in town and backtracked their ancestry to Abe- and this helped me follow the research and pull some documents to share with my family. And it has been extremely frustrating following all the spellings of the last name- my ancestors settled on Beauregard.

    1. You are very welcome, and I'm glad my post was able to help you with your research. One of the joys of genealogy is figuring out just how many ways your family members spelled their name (or had it spelled for them).


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