Vanessa Williams’s Civil War

I don’t mind admitting that I am a sucker for the recent string of television shows that trace the family histories of our favorite celebrities.  They perform an important function within the muck and mire that is popular entertainment.  Most importantly, they present the study of history as an exciting process that often leads to meaningful self discovery.  This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows Vanessa Williams as she searches for information about her great-great grandfather, who served in the USCTs during the Civil War.  Williams also learns that an ancestor served in the Tennessee legislature in the 1880s and even introduced legislation mandating public education.  All in all we have here another strong emancipationist narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction that has made it into our mainstream culture.

9 comments… add one
  • Neil Hamilton Feb 7, 2011 @ 9:36


    Thanks to your posts on black Confederates, I’ve been doing a bit of research myself on the topic, even passing information and questions with someone about their black ancestors service in the Civil War. The amazing thing I discovered from her was that her ancestor fought in a white Union regiment during the war and that he did so by not ‘passing for white’ but as a black man. She recently sent me an email with the following book title.

    Forgotten Black Soldiers In White Regiments During The Civil War, Revised Edition, by Juanita Patience Moss. The book can be found at Heritage Books at this website:

    This is an amazing bit of history I had no idea about and wanted to share with you and your audience here at your site.

    I have called this discovery the “flip side” of the black Confederate story.


  • Andy Hall Feb 7, 2011 @ 6:29

    One wonders where she thinks her blue eyes came from.

    Those are contacts. Snark isn’t really helpful here.

    I thought this was the best of the (three?) Kevin’s highlighted so far. It’s a great concept for a show, even if the idea is not entirely original.

  • Vicki Betts Feb 7, 2011 @ 4:24

    I know they have time limitations, but I was left wishing that they had traced her Memphis ancestor back just a little further back. I wanted to know when and how he became educated, and who his parents might have been. But I have to admit, I was teary-eyed as well when she read the tribute to him in the court records.

    And I wanted to know, how did Memphis meet Long Island?

    Vicki Betts

  • Eva Feb 6, 2011 @ 20:25

    I watched the episode tonight as well. Williams seemed surprised that one of her ancestors was married to a white woman. One wonders where she thinks her blue eyes came from.

    It is wonderful, however, that the show is able to trace the ancestry for them. Dr. Gates also had a similar program, but it was on PBS; it seems Lisa Kudrow (producer) borrowed a page from Gates and pitched the show to NBC where it is now a mainstream show. Co-opting much Lisa Kudrow?

    • Andy Hall Feb 7, 2011 @ 10:38

      I’d also venture that Ms. Williams and her siblings were well aware, in a general sense, that they had white ancestors. But knowing or believing that, in a vague and undefined way — someone, somewhere — is very different than confronting it explicitly on the written page, with a name and a date and a place.

      As it happens, I come at it from the opposite direction, having long suspected that some of my ancestors were slaveholders, even though that rather salient fact was dropped from my family’s oral tradition. But suspecting it, assuming it to be true, is not the same as finding actual documentation of it.

  • Corey Meyer Feb 6, 2011 @ 17:15

    As much as I too like these types of programs (Didn’t Henry Louis Gates do one like this as well?), it sure would be nice to be famous enough for someone to come along and help me find the missing information in my ancestory.

    But great episode!

  • Margaret D. Blough Feb 6, 2011 @ 15:19

    I liked that she was just as fascinated, if not more fascinated, with her great-grandfather’s Reconstruction career in politics and his efforts to improve education for black children as she was with the ancestor who fought in the USCT. BTW, I also like Matthew Broderick’s episode, particularly when they identified where his ancestor was buried.

  • The History Enthusiast Feb 6, 2011 @ 10:28

    I absolutely loved this episode. I think it was my favorite one thus far (although I enjoyed Sarah Jessica Parker’s last season). I have even thought about using these in my survey classes, although I haven’t quite figured out how to do that in a way that is effective.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 6, 2011 @ 10:31

      It is one of my favorites as well. The question of how to use these episodes in the classroom is a good one. I am going to give it some thought. Thanks.

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