Posted by Ancestry Team on April 14, 2017 in Who Do You Think You Are?

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”.

SM2We 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 Watch full episodes of the show on 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.


  1. Monika

    what the …. is going on. You let me access my account on the main computer but when I try and access on my laptop you refuse to let me enter the correct password and username and force an old program on me of trees I started decades ago and no long even look at. And of course it is Easter weekend and I can’t reach any one.

  2. Monika

    When I try to put my user name in my laptop it tells me that “the username you entered is unavailable”. One more time “I am IT! Your username identifies you to other users on Ancestry.” One more time: I AM the “other user” and changed my user name 15 years ago to the one that you now consider the “other user”.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Monika: We’re sorry to hear that you’re having issues with your username. Just to confirm, are you trying to change your username back to a username that you previously had? When you try to log in to your laptop, is it automatically logging you in to your old account? Since this is account specific, can you please call us at 1-800-ANCESTRY (1-800-262-3787) between the hours of 9am to 11pm EST so we can take a closer look at this?

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Evelyn: Thanks for contacting us. We’re not sure we understand the question correctly so it would be very helpful to get some additional information. How can we assist you in relation to your trees?

  3. Pamela Martin

    Thank you so much for posting on others ways of research. I have also been fortunate in locating parents by following there children. Also, sometimes in researching for a marriage record we may have to accept that not everyone did it legally. Commonlaw marriages were not legal in a lot of states, but a lot of people felt they were during the earlier years (ignorance of the law). Women would live with a man and all of a sudden their children would wound up with a new last name. My grand father listed his bio-father’s first name and used his step-fathers last name on his marriage license. His step-father was a witness to the wedding. Giving respect to the man who brought him here and to the man who raised him. I love it. A marriage license can be found for his biological parents (Jennings), but not for his step-father and mother (Martin). We are Martin’s and our DNA belongs to Jennings. I had to tell my 83yr old father his true paternal bloodline. We confirmed it by obtaining his father and aunts birth certificates. They were born Jennings.

    My dilemma lies with an older sister of my grand father’s, who passed in 1941. On her death certificate the biological father’s full name is listed in parentheses and noted deceased. Her name is “Ella May” Brown (married) b:1909/10 KY. Her mother’s name is “Ella Jane” Robinson (maiden) KY. I can’t locate them as a family unit under “Jennings/Robinson”. Because she should appear in 1910c if birth earlier. Her always worked as a cook on farms/private families. No Ella Jennings/Robinson appears in 1910 in another household in KY w/child on a farm or residence. Economics played a role also which confined me to focus on one location. They were poor with no vehicle. The family has no knowledge of where my grandmother “Ella Jane” was born or exact year. She placed her birth in Clark county, Ky on her 2nd child birth record and Fayette county, KY on my grandfather’s birth record. No record available for oldest daughter “Ella May”. I can’t even find “Ella May” with her husband, George Brown. Only a death certificate. “Ella May Brown” should at least be listed in a 1920/1930/1940c. She passed in Fayette County, KY.

    Any suggestions on how to at least knocking down a couple of bricks in this wall?

  4. Adriana

    I have attempted to do research regarding my family. My family originally came from Budapest hungary and they were Jewish. All of my family members except for my parents were killed. What resources do you have to assist Jewish people from Jewish hungary? I have been unable to even find any records related to my own parents except for their immigration papers. My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1940s. Thank you

  5. Artie Gilbert Sanders

    I need to be through with this research soon as I expect to reset and go forward.

  6. Linda Ross

    I am Linda Clay (Ross) in Ross Family Tree. Looking for native American Indian heritage of my father Elmer Clay, and my grandma Ella Clay. Who moved to promoscott Missouri and Saline ,Missouri around 19440. I remember my grandma Ella Clay. Not sure of her maiden name. She was Indian. Also my father Elmer Clay moved to Pontiac Michigan in 1951 . I am looking for records to prove my native American heritage.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Ernest: We’re very sorry to hear that. We ask you to please call us at 1-800-ANCESTRY (1-800-262-3787) between the hours of 9am to 11pm EST, seven days a week and we will of course assist you further in relation to this.

  7. Carol Kingman

    4/27/17 they notified me they started to process my DNA after they got it 6 weeks long does it take for results?

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Carol: We’re sorry for the delay in our response. The normal processing times is 6-8 weeks, however, it could take only 2-4 weeks since sometimes they may need to extract a sample a few times before they get a viable hit on one where as they may only need to do it once or twice on the other. We hope you will receive them soon and that you will be happy with your results.

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