It might seem ironic that a filmmaker – a professional story teller – didn’t get his own family’s story on film before it was too late, but that’s what happened to Spike Lee on Who Do You Think You Are?, whose grandmother died in 2006 at age 100, taking with her whatever she knew about the family’s history. With Spike determined to learn more about his mother’s family so he can pass the information on to his own children, too, he sets out to retrace his slave ancestors’ lives. Here’s where he goes:
- Laurens County Library, Dublin, GA – Spike’s first stop is Dublin, Georgia, where he searches for information about his great-great-grandmother, Lucinda. Looking through Georgia Death, 1919-1998 at Ancestry.com, he discovers she died on May 13, 1934. Her obituary gives him more details – including the names of her three sons and parents. But who was Lucinda’s spouse? Spike moves forward in time to discover that answer: Lucinda’s son’s death certificate lists his father as Mars Jackson.
- Georgia State Archives, Morrow, GA – Spike looks to the 1880 census to find more about Mars. In it is a farmer named Mars who’s married to a woman named Lucy and living with three sons, whose names match those of Lucinda’s children. But the family’s surname isn’t Jackson – it’s Woodall. Was this the name of Mars’s slaveholder? The 1860 census indicates James Woodall owned slaves and lived in the same county where Mars and Lucy lived in 1880. Reviewing the details of the slaves owned by James Woodall in 1860 slave schedule shows Spike he’s on the right track. The 1880 agricultural schedule, which, like slave schedules, was a supplement to the federal census, indicates that Mars owned more than 80 acres of land.
- Mars’s property, Twiggs County, GA – Spike walks through the land once owned by his ancestor Mars, realizing that Mars was indeed a successful farmer. Spike digs into the red Georgia clay, taking some home for his children. He decides that he needs to learn more, this time about Mars’s wife, Lucinda. Where does her trail lead?
- Macon, GA – Former slaves freed during the Civil War appear by name for the first time in the 1870 census, which is where Spike turns to learn more about Lucinda’s parents, Wilson and Matilda Griswold. Matilda Griswold, race mulatto, is living in Griswoldville in the Grier family household, working as their cook. But where is Wilson? The surname Griswold and the town Griswoldville both point to a man named Samuel Griswold, who owned a very large number of slaves. In a signed Agreement that contracted slaves to work in Samuel’s cotton gin business, the slave Wilson is one of a handful listed by name.
- Historical Marker, Griswoldville, GA – Spike soon learns from a historical marker that this cotton gin in which Wilson worked had a double life: it was a pistol factory during the Civil War. But Wilson’s trail seems to end when General Sherman destroys the factory. Spike holds a pistol made in the factory and sees photos of both Samuel Griswold and Louisa Griswold. Wanting to know more about Matilda’s mulatto designation and why she was living in the Grier household, Spike is told that Samuel Griswold’s daughter, Eliza, married Ebenezer Grier. Matilda was likely gifted to Eliza. Why? Because slaves who were fathered by their slaveholder were often passed to other family members. If this is what happened with Matilda, odds are very good that Samuel Griswold was her father – and Spike’s great-great-great-great-grandfather.
- Cousin’s home, TX – Spike connects with a descendant of Samuel Griswold. In her home, he sits down with her, telling her that he believes they’re 3rd cousins, twice removed. The pair discusses family connections and slavery, and ponders how one person could ever own another human being.
Spike Lee’s journey proves that you can find details about a slave ancestor’s life. And to do so, Spike turns to some very specific census schedules: slave schedules and agricultural schedules. Neither of these focus on names or family details (in fact, in slave schedules, the only names listed tend to be those of the slave owner). Still, details about a person can be extracted from each. In the agriculture schedule from 1880, the freed Mars is shown to own a large, successful farm. In the slave schedules, Spike is able to match information about unnamed slaves to the details he discovered about his ancestors on later census schedules.
This was the final episode of Season 1 of Who Do You Think You Are? If you missed this episode or a previous one, visit NBC.com to catch each online (you’ll also find bonus scenes there). Remember, you can always keep up to date on everything happening at Ancestry.com and keep the conversation going via our Facebook page.