Lionel Ritchie’s Black Confederate Ancestor

Here is another very touching and informative episode of “Who Do You Think You Are” featuring Lionel Ritchie.  Ritchie searches for his great grandfather, J.L. Brown, and discovers that he applied for a pension based on his presence as a servant to Morgan W. Brown, who served in the Confederate army.  Brown, it turns out, may have been his father or half brother. The historian who assists him is none other than Ervin Jordan. It is entirely possible that parts of this scene were edited, but Jordan makes no claims about this man’s loyalty to the cause or anything related to service as a soldier. It would have been helpful if they had included some kind of explanation as to why these pensions were given.  What we do learn is that Brown’s relationship with his father/half brother must have been a complex one and certainly difficult for a descendant to understand and ultimately come to terms with.  What we do know is that this man was not a soldier.  It is just this space between master and slave that I hope to explore in my own study of black camp servants and “black Confederates.”  This is an episode worth watching in its entirety.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

33 comments… add one
  • Joe Rosenthal Apr 14, 2012 @ 6:53

    It was interesting to me that Mr. Richie did not seem to want to follow up on his caucasian ancestors. For example, who are caucasian decendants of Morgan Welles Brown?

    Nonetheless, the program was beyond interesting: it was intriguing. Confronting one’s less than pleasant inheritance is a true challenge.

  • mary osborn Sep 10, 2011 @ 21:33

    Would like to get in touch with Lionel Ritchey to tell him about more history he can obtain regarding his ancestors. thank you

    • Kevin Levin Sep 11, 2011 @ 2:17

      Hi Mary,

      Sorry, but my celebrity status has only opened so many doors. 🙂

  • Elli Apr 13, 2011 @ 15:59

    I’m simply amazed that one of the most important links in this entire story that ties many of the points mentioned here is being over looked, and that is Brown being associated with the Free Mason organization, and being the organizer behind it all.

    Now, Dr. Morgan Brown must have been a member, but also as a physician he would also have been associated with the group, but even more importantly I suspect that their may be a Jewish factor connecting the Browns, if not Dr. Morgan Brown being of Jewish faith. This was not uncommon during that time, and many who were of Jewish faith were also listed or registered as otherwise.

    Dr. Morgan Brown had only asked for a two year education, but his half black son judging by his books, writings, and involvement in a elite group seemed far too educated to have only been given two years of education. He must have had formal training,or a possible presence through his families connection with the Free Mason organization. That point alone proves why he was protected even though he was born to a slave mother. It is highly likely that Dr. Morgan Brown was protecting his family lineage and why his son was seemingly equally protective of the family lineage. I think this point is being purposely edited out.

  • Robyn Mar 22, 2011 @ 12:02

    I have recently come across your blog and I am enjoying each and every post on your blog. I am a genealogist, and we often look at things slightly differently from a professional historian–I like to say we are two sides of the same piece of bread. Genealogy is what led me to become so fascinated with history and passionate about preserving it–not just individual family stories but also those of communities. I find your posts on Black Confederates required reading for those of us involved in the often tedious process of tracing African American ancestors and I am going to recommend them to my blog readers. The evidence assessment standards of professional genealogy are similar to those you discuss many times. Keep up the great work!!!!

    • Kevin Levin Mar 22, 2011 @ 12:07

      Thanks Robyn. I appreciate the kind words.

  • jim c Mar 21, 2011 @ 5:43

    Earlier I mentioned (John) Louis Brown as appearing on the census at the same address as Albion McDaniel, a white tobacco dealer. The city directory lists Brown as living on the second floor of the building where McDaniel had his business. So therefore there was probably no personal connection. He also seems to appear in Nashville city directories off and on from the 1850’s onwards. In 1853 there was a _____Brown, free colored, listed that might have been him. This was the year he was freed. You can usually separate out African Americans in old directories because they have (c) after their names standing for colored. It appeared at one time, I think 1860, he worked at or ran a livery stable. By 1878 he was listed as the editor of a newspaper they talked about in the show.

  • Mary Johansen Mar 20, 2011 @ 18:53

    Has anyone researched who the mother of Dr. Morgan Brown was? Just wondering if his mother’s maiden name was Morgan because my great-great grandfather was Irby Morgan Sr. of Nashville, married to Julia Ann DeMoville who wrote “How it Was-Four years among the rebels. Just wondering if there is a relationship.

  • jim c Mar 9, 2011 @ 13:52

    I noticed in the will he was referred to as Lewis and not Joseph. He may have added that later. The slave schedule for 1850 for Davidson County shows that Morgan W. Brown listed as M. W. Brown had 8 slaves none of which fit J. L. Brown. However, there was a Lewis Brown in the regular 1860 census for Nashville listed as free black and the right age. He was sharing a place with an older well to do white man Albon McDaniel from Virginia who was a tobacco dealer. Brown was working as a carpenter. They lived in an area of whites except for one other black who was a laborer.

    Thompson may not have been his owner but used to protect Brown from being put back into slavery. So many ex slaves had been freed in the South that manny states enacted laws saying they had to emigrate. Otherwise, any one could claim them as a slave again. This had the effect of making them go north so they couldn’t be a source of discontent to slaves in their area. I don’t know if Tennessee had such a law but a lot of crooked things were done in those days. In the WPA slave chronicles I read of several kidnappings of free blacks and Indians sold into slavery.

    The 1860 census for the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) is labelled “Indian Lands West of Arkansas. One of the kidnappings I mentioned took place in the Chocaw Nation. The 1860 slave schedule lists an unusual subterfuge to prevent this from happening. The census taker listed as a slave owner an Indian Woman (Citizen of the Choctaw Nation) her white husband and her half brother who was Indian/black. Then in a footnote the census taker stated that this was in name only to keep him from being stolen and sold into slavery. This way he had the protecion of the law as someone’s legal property and they would be arrested for theft. Theft in the Choctaw Nation at that time was punished by a public flogging. More serious crimes such as murder were punished for firing squad. What slavery they had in the Indian territory was by whites and almost white mixed breeds. Full bloods and the Seminoles in particular looked down on slavery.

  • Ken Noe Mar 6, 2011 @ 14:43

    I did a bit of consulting for what is apparently the final episode, and for what it’s worth, the person I worked with was very committed to getting the story right, in all it’s complexity. Perhaps I’ll change my mind when it airs, but as of now I’m favorably impressed.

  • Rana Mar 6, 2011 @ 11:32

    I agree with Julie. NBC put a lot of work into this research and much of it had to be trimmed to fit in the 60 minute format. For example, there is a one minute segment on-line that contains more of the Jordan interview describing the role of “body servants” during the Civil War.

    I would hope that NBC and Ancestry could provide a family tree, links to copies of actual source documents so that it can be used by historians. Pre-Civil war primary source research like this on African Americans is rare and should be shared for the benefit of posterity.

    So, like Julie, I was frustrated, wanted to know more, and did a bit of work on my own. Indeed both Dr. Morgan Brown and his son, Federal Court Judge Morgan Welles Brown, were dead by the time of the Civil War.

    If you watch the film closely you can see that the confederate pension application states that J.L Brown was servant to Lt John C. Thompson, Tennessee 20th Infantry, Company C. My guess is that this is John Claiborne Thompson (abt 1828 -1872) son of Morgan W. Brown’s sister, Elizabeth Little Brown by a second marriage.

    John B. Lindsley’s Military Annuals of Tennessee – Confederate (1866) states on page 384 that Co C. was “from Nashville and vicinity”, and that there was a 3rd Lt _______, Thompson. [It appears that the author did not know his first name.] The history states that in late 1861 and early 1862, the 20th Tennessee fought in Tennessee and Kentucky, leading up to the battle of “bloody” Shiloh on 4 Apr 1862. After Shiloh, the army retreated and reorganized in Corinth.

    The muster rolls ending 31 Aug 1862 show that a 2nd Lt. John C. Thompson enlisted for 12 months on 20 May 1861 in Nashville and states “Discharge 15 May by reason of not being reelected.” [I understand that the Confederate Army elected junior officers from the ranks.] Another Muster Roll for John C Thompson dated “Dalton, 21 Jan 1864” contains remarks that “honorable discharge at reorganization at Corinth”

    After the war, Thompson married Rowena Ewing, a member of another prominent family. Rowena applied for a Tennessee Confederate Civil War Pension.

    Of interest, and of some contradiction is the material that is taken from a 2005 book by Nat Hughes and John Wilson that is available on line 8/16/2005 – Hamilton County Confederates: A-B – Memories –

    “BROWN, John L. “Doc” Co. C, 20TN
    Black soldier born Oct. 25, 1839, Davidson Co., TN (VA?). Slave of Morgan W. Brown. Joined May 20, 1861 with Lt. John C. Thompson at Nashville. Young master killed at Fort Pickens and Brown wounded. “He bore dispatches to Felix Zollicoffer and performed many other duties of service and responsibility.” Disch. Corinth, May 22, 1962. “He has married a middle aged colored woman who is trying to run him off from home. We are perfectly willing to take
    care of him at Silverdale, but he refuses to go to the poor house. He wants to go to the Old Soldiers Home.” Res. East 12th St., 1924. [TP186]”

    As to the contradictions, the Lindsley history does not mention the 20th Tennessee fighting at Fort Pickens (Florida) and the John C. Thompson related to the Brown family appears to have survived the war. The comments contained in the Hughes and Wilson work may have come from the pension file which I wish NBC would put on line so that we could better understand them.

    Research that I wish could be done (perhaps good projects for a high school class):

    1. Morgan W and Elizabeth Little Brown Thompson’s wills to see if there is any mention of disposition of slaves.

    2. Employment Rolls and Nonpayment Rolls of Negroes Employed in the Defenses of Nashville, Tennessee 1862-1863 (Tennessee State Archives). There is a “free man” “Lewis Brown” and a “Louis Brown” File number 2121 and 2241 respectfully. There are also two files for John Brown. One owned by Robt. Brown (File 69) and the other owned by T Brown (file 117). This is a long shot, but J. L. may have returned to Nashville in 1862 and was pressed into service.

    3. Rowena Thompson’s pension application. (Tennessee State Archives)

    4. Background on Dr. Morgan Brown and his family. Dr. Brown fought in the revolutionary war and corresponded with Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

    The NBC segment may be just the start of a great story…….

    [NARA M268 Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers who served in Organizations from the State of Tennessee – Available from Footnote

    John Lindsey’s book is available on-line from Cornell.]

    • Kevin Levin Mar 6, 2011 @ 11:56


      Thanks so much for the follow up. This is very helpful information.

    • Willie L. Robinson Mar 18, 2011 @ 11:08

      For the names of others who served as John L. Brown did, visit Tennessee Colored Pension Applications for CSA Service.

      • Andy Hall Mar 18, 2011 @ 17:21

        A name index to Tennessee Confederate pensions is available here. Pension numbers are preceded S for soldier, W for widow, and C for “colored.” There’s also a breakout by county. AFAIK the files themselves not online.

    • Anne Nickelson Hintch Jul 29, 2015 @ 18:22

      The John C Thompson (1813-1862) 20th Infantry Company C is John Castleman Thompson. He died spring 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh. He is my great-great grandfather. I know he owned slaves. Any other information is appreciated!

  • Julie Trout Mar 5, 2011 @ 20:12

    From records at and the TN archives, Dr. Morgan Brown died in 1840 and Morgan W. Brown died in 1853. So John Louis Brown did not go into the war as a servant of either man. I wonder what happened to the family after the younger Morgan’s death. I wish the show would go into more detail. As a genealogist and historian, I really want to know more, more, more!

  • Margaret D. Blough Mar 5, 2011 @ 18:55

    There are several studies of the very complex relationships between whites and blacks during slavery and afterwards. One of those is Edward Ball’s, “Slaves in the Family” and another is Henry Wiencek’s “The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White.” I worked for many years with an HR Director, who was also a D.Ed., and a “black” Hairston. She was very impressed and touched by the Wiencek book. One thing that is clear is that there were at least some genuine romantic interracial relationships even in the antebellum period and one of the most tragic things is the common pattern, both before and after the end of slavery, that even when a white man did try to do the right thing and acknowledge and attempt to provide for a black woman he loved (marriage being a legal impossibility) and/or their child(ren), if any, after his death, those efforts were almost invariably defeated by the white relatives, supported by the courts.

    • Denise Johnson Apr 13, 2012 @ 17:02

      For more cases of interracial relationships, see The Digital Library on American Slavery ( created from eighteen years of work on slave petitions by “my hero,” recently retired Elizabeth Rosenthal Excellence Professor of History at the University of North Carolina- Greensboro, Dr. Loren L. Schweninger. Dr. Schweninger also is the author of several books and papers on African American history ( those he co-authored with his mentor, the late Dr. John L. Franklin.

  • Corey Meyer Mar 5, 2011 @ 17:23

    To say the least, the discussion between Mr. Jordan and Mr. Ritchie leave a great deal to be desired.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2011 @ 18:41

      It’s worth noting once again that we don’t know if anything was edited out.

      • Margaret D. Blough Mar 5, 2011 @ 18:57

        Kevin-Given that it’s an hour show, I think we can take as a given that a lot took place behind the scenes.

      • Corey Meyer Mar 5, 2011 @ 19:09

        That is true, I guess what it leaves me with is a desire to ask more questions. Some of those questions are answered in the next segment, but it seems like a great opportunity to ask more questions was missed. That being said, I don’t thing there is a cover-up or something going on, but when you look into the issue of black confederates and then you have one who would fit the criteria, you want to ask more questions.

  • James F. Epperson Mar 5, 2011 @ 14:23

    I think it is a good show, for all the flaws—which may well be induced by editing to achieve a result. As a Civil War “buff” (I hate that term) I prefer the episodes that deal with those issues, but as someone pursuing the genealogy of my own and my wife’s family, I like the overall concept. It has me motivated to take a trip to Fayetteville, WV, and Lynchburg, VA (homes of the Eppersons)

  • Chrisitne Smith Mar 5, 2011 @ 5:01

    This is just a superb episode/ series! I was wondering if you would pick up on the black Confederate link. I live in Indianapolis and there is a Confederate Plot in Crown Hill Cemetery here that contains the remains of the Confederate soldiers who died at Camp Morton prison camp from 1862-65. It is a common grave, but has large cement markers topped by bronze plaques containing the names of those who are buried there from Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, among other states. Almost every state has at least one black man listed as “servant” who died in the camp along with his master. I visit there at least once a year, because I feel strongly that someone should. These men were someones fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles, husbands, and they died and are buried far from home, perhaps with their families not knowing where they were. Everyone here visits the Union/National part of the cemetery; it’s just my way of saying “I remember you”, including those black servants.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2011 @ 5:06

      Hi Christine,

      Thanks for the comment. It was bad enough to be owned by another human being, but those men who were brought into the war by their masters or impressed by the Confederate government to work on earthworks experienced the worst aspects of slavery. By definition slavery functioned as a prison, but now imagine being captured and ending up in a norther military prison camp. These men deserve to be remembered in some form.

  • Chris Meekins Mar 5, 2011 @ 4:38

    I have enjoyed this series and this episode is certainly on par with Vanessa Williams’ episode. I was a bit disappointed that they did not connect the dots a tad more about the Dr. Morgan will and his emancipation of Louis and Louis’ mother. Clearly the good doctor emancipated them both in his will and set up an education for Louis. The pension, however, clearly indicates that the younger Morgan did not live up to the doctor’s will – for Louis indicated he was a slave and that Morgan was his master. A tad more clarity on the pension would have helped. But this was a dynamic (the lack of emancipation) they could have explored or perhaps they should have explored. John Louis Brown’s story is riveting, nonetheless.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2011 @ 4:48

      I couldn’t agree more. They left that important connection in the air. There are plenty of examples, including Richard Randolph of Virginia, who attempted to make their wills as ironclad as possible to ensure that relatives could not undue steps to emancipate certain slaves. That looks to be what happened here.

    • Craig Friend Mar 5, 2011 @ 7:17

      I too enjoy this series, but must admit that I have been increasingly bothered this season by the things that go unstated or unconnected. Having talked to several of the historians who have been on these shows, I understand that each show is scripted. While the historians may add information, in most cases they just follow the script. Steven Aron told me that in last season’s show with Sarah Jessica Parker, they had to retake a scene several times and that, being the actress she is, each time she mustered up the same sense of surprise at the document he was showing her–so much for the fine line between reality and scripted!

      Anyway, I suspect Jordan’s comments were confined to a certain narrative, one that relates the fascinating details of Ritchie’s ancestor while minimizing potential criticism of whites. The only critical comments in the episode were Ritchie’s, basically condemning the “brutal times” but not the brutal people. This minimization of criticism towards whites was evident as well in the Vanessa Williams episode, and most evident in the Tim McGraw episode in which McGraw declared his an “American story” multiple times, as the narrative celebrated his Hite ancestor as one of the greatest land gobblers in colonial Virginia, overlooking the fact that he also treated Indian peoples despicably, essentially circumventing colonial laws and lying and stealing Indian lands right out from under them.

      • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2011 @ 7:20

        Thanks for the comment, Craig. It might be interesting for someone to go through this series to more carefully account for the ways in which these shows are produced and what it tells us about how history is presented to and consumed by the general public.

      • Andy Hall Mar 5, 2011 @ 9:35

        I have been increasingly bothered this season by the things that go unstated or unconnected.

        That concerns me as well. The show seems to have a habit of reaching conclusions or assumptions that aren’t fully justified by the evidence that makes it into the final, edited version. I suspect there’s much that ends up on the cutting room floor, due to the twin constraints of time and entertainment value, but it’s bothersome nonetheless.

        The show has an annoying habit of changing “possible” findings into “probable” in the space of a commercial break. As I recall the Spike Lee episode from last season, they found a female ancestor of Lee’s, an enslaved woman of mixed race. At one point, either Lee or the archivist assisting him suggested that this woman may have been the child of her owner. That’s a possibility, to be sure, but (IIRC) the show cut to commercial at that dramatic “reveal,” and returned after the break with Lee flying to Dallas to meet a descendant of the slaveholder, now identified as his probable long-lost cousin. It’s just too much.

        Steven Aron told me that in last season’s show with Sarah Jessica Parker, they had to retake a scene several times and that, being the actress she is, each time she mustered up the same sense of surprise at the document he was showing her–so much for the fine line between reality and scripted!

        Heh. My recollection from the Spike Lee episode was that he looked mightily bored in the archives, without even feigned interest in the actual nuts-and-bolts of the research process. No acting there.

        But given all that, I’m still a great fan of the show’s concept, if not always its execution. Despite some dubious conclusions and commercial tie-in to, I do think it puts across a really useful message, which is that those ancestors we know little or nothing about led complex and interesting (if not always laudable) lives that are worth knowing about.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2011 @ 11:04


          I share your concerns as well. At the same time I am hard pressed for a show that comes close to introducing the general public to a history that for most people lay off the beaten path.

      • Chris Meekins Mar 6, 2011 @ 8:00

        In the McGraw episode they left a lot unsaid about the Palatines and the suffering that lead those folks to flee Palatine (where they were serfs and the property of their prince) and to then suffer at the hand of good Queen Anne (who ran a political risk in stealing the serfs from a prince – so she claimed them to be Belgians I believe). NC had a share of those immigrants, most came into Jamestown and made their way south – some went to New Bern. After suffering the indignity of English food for a year (which played havoc on their German guts) they faced the middle passage to America not unlike cargo ships of slaves (from what I have read – not too terribly much but a thing or two). My Baum ancestor was one. Instead we got a gee-whiz moment: Elvis’s ancestor traveled with McGraw’s. But that sells the sizzle and is very understandable.

Leave a Reply to Ken NoeCancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *