Motown legend Smokey Robinson grew up in Detroit, “Motor City”, and he remembered his maternal grandmother fondly, but he knew nothing about his maternal grandfather. Fortunately, his mother Flossie’s death certificate gave us both her parents’ names. His grandmother, who he knew as “Rivers”, was actually Ella Mae Warr. Unfortunately, his grandfather had the far more common name of Benjamin Smith. Tracing Benjamin Smith in records was quite a challenge because his name was so common; a problem that is not uncommon in genealogy. There are a few methods that can help when dealing with this situation, and we had to use every one of them.
We first looked for records in which Benjamin would be listed with other known family members whose names were not so common. In this case, that was the 1910 census for Memphis, Tennessee, where Smokey’s mother would have appeared as a young girl in her parents’ household. We found Flossie Smith living with her mother Rivers, but father Benjamin was not with the family. Rivers was listed as head of household, but “married” not “widowed”, so Benjamin was living elsewhere. There were several Benjamin Smiths in the Memphis area, so we traced each one in the census records to see if any connected with the family, but none did. Benjamin never appeared with Rivers or Flossie on any census.
We went back to searching for Rivers Smith in other records and found a 1914 divorce petition where B. J. Smith was filing against Ella Smith. This fit with the two records we knew were for the ancestors. Flossie’s death record gave us Rivers’ given name “Ella Mae”, and we knew from the 1910 census that Rivers and Benjamin were still married, but separated at that time. This divorce record gave us Benjamin’s middle initial “J”.
We went back to the 1910 census armed with Benjamin’s middle initial and found the only Benjamin J. Smith living anywhere near Tennessee. He was a clergyman in Birmingham, Alabama, but he was listed as single boarder. Given the likely state of his marriage at the time, this did not eliminate him from being the ancestor. Using his occupation as a guide, we searched city directories, which often list occupation, and church histories. Given Flossie’s birthdate, we focused on Memphis city directories prior to 1910 and found him listed in 1908 as pastor of the Rock of Ages Church. His occupation was the thing that set him apart from the 14 Benjamin Smiths living in Memphis at the time.
We continued to trace him through church records and histories to East St. Louis, Illinois, where he started the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church on 1 January 1926. The church’s 90th anniversary pamphlet indicated that Reverend Smith resigned 12 December 1957 because of failing health. This led us to his death certificate dated 12 December 1957.
Learn more about Smokey’s journey or see videos about other celebrities’ ancestries on TLC.com. Watch full episodes of the show on TLCgo.com. Discover more celebrities uncovering their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 10|9c on TLC.
Tips from AncestryProGenealogists:
When searching for an ancestor with a common name, start with what you know about the family. Glean every bit of information you can from their records and don’t be afraid to make inferences about the family situation based on what you find. Don’t give up if you can’t find them in the census! Think about where they could be and what they could be doing. Other tips include:
- Search for records where the ancestor would appear with other known ancestors.
- Look for a distinguishing middle initial, name or title.
- What did the ancestor do? Search for people with similar occupations.
- Trace possible candidates to see if they connect with the family at some point.
- You may need to eliminate other contending persons with the same name as your ancestor, so don’t be afraid to dive in and research out some of the other people with the same name.