This third season of Who Do You Think You Are has not been doing particularly well in the ratings. Because of this, and because of a slower subscriber growth expectation, Ancestry.com’s stock has slumped. For those reasons, this will probably be the last season of Who Do You Think You Are. If the rest of the season is like this week’s episode, all I can say is “good riddance.”
At the outset, let me say that I have nothing against Jerome Bettis. Not being a fan of the NFL, I had actually never heard of him until this season’s celebrities were announced. I take great pains to point out that this review is not personal against Bettis, because in the past I have gotten personal before, and got a very nasty response from a reader.
This week’s episode was awful, maybe the worst of the show’s entire run. In the previous two seasons, there have been definite valleys among the peaks, but overall the series was very strong. This season not so much. The show began with an awful episode (Martin Sheen), and the next three, although better in quality, also had major flaws. Who Do You Think You Are, which has always been a vehicle for Ancestry, is abandoned storytelling for the sake of sales. It’s Ancestry’s right to do so, but it certainly affects my enjoyment of the program.
The problem with tonight’s episode was that it reinforced almost all of the show’s other flaws: the Ancestry plugs, the unsubtle hints about what is to come, the importance of story at the price of history, too many commercials and too much filler, and the baseless assumptions made by the celebrities to whitewash ancestors with less than stellar qualities. In the world of Who Do You Think You Are, only owning slaves makes you less than heroic; lesser sins however, do not disqualify shady figures from Ancestry canonization. Over and over again we learn about ancestors who abandon their families, and over and over again it is excused away. Only Kim Cattrall was honest enough to call out her grandfather as a reprobate, but that episode was filmed for the British series.
Jerome Bettis knew about his father’s family (his father died a few years prior), but knew virtually nothing about his mother’s family, the Bougards. He began his journey in Detroit where he spoke to his mother Gladys and her brother Abram (“Butch”). Bettis learned that his grandfather Abram Bougard was the son of Burnett and Ruby Bougard, and that Burnett was a troublemaker who disappeared when Abram the elder was all of six-years-old. Abram never spoke about his father.
Using Ancestry (PLUG!), Bettis found Burnett’s death certificate, learned that he died in Paducah, Kentucky and found out that Burnett’s father was named Abe. Coincidentally, I looked up on the certificate online, and found out Burnett’s mother’s maiden name too (Amanda Gee), but she was never mentioned on the show, ignored to the point that her name was not even shown on Bettis’s family tree.
In Paducah, Bettis learned that there was a divorce between Burnett and Ruby, which seemed to relieve him and would later relieve his mother and uncle. I’m not exactly sure why; if anything the divorce record (between “Ruby Beaurgard” and “Burnett Beargard”) indicates exactly what a heel Burnett was. The reason for the divorce was abandonment. What I wondered, and what was never addressed is whether Burnett was even at his divorce. After a certain period of time, an abandoned spouse can simply go into court and just get the divorce. Given that Ruby brought witnesses with her to affirm that she was abandoned (one witness testified that Burnett told Ruby he was leaving and she could keep the house), I am pretty sure that is what happened. Ruby was able to divorce Burnett because he up and left; Burnett did not divorce her.
But, because this is American television, Burnett had to be redeemed. Redemption came in a newspaper article from 1897 which detailed how Burnett pressed charged against his supervisor for an assault and battery that took place at his job. Because Burnett was a black man and his boss was white, bringing this charge in the Jim Crow South (where lynching was the norm) was extremely dangerous. Even the newspaper reflected this climate of hatred; the 21-year-old Burnett pejoratively as both “boy” and as a “darkey.” Unsurprisingly, the charges were dismissed.
Then we got a narration about Reconstruction. As I said in my last recap, slavery is America’s original sin. The oppression of Jim Crow is almost its equal, and Kentucky has its own pernicious, racist legacy from which it cannot escape. But Kentucky was different from most of the South, because Kentucky never left the United States. Four slave states–Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware–stayed in the Union and did not defect during the Civil War. Kentucky slave owners kept their slaves throughout the War, the Emancipation Proclamation never applied to Kentucky, and because Kentucky was in the Union, it was never militarily occupied during Reconstruction like former Confederate states were. Although the narration did not explicitly say that Kentucky was occupied, it was implied. Since Bettis’s entire story happened in Kentucky, it would have been nice if someone had made this distinction. If anything, blacks in Kentucky suffered more during Reconstruction than their counterparts in the former Confederate states because there was no Union army to protect them.
Bettis, seeing this court case, decides that Burnett is brave and harps on and on about his bravery. Here’s the problem for me though Bettis knows exactly two things about his great-grandfather’s life: (1) he abandoned his wife and children; and (2) he pressed charges against his employer, and those charges were dismissed. I can only speak for myself, but in my eyes Fact #2 does not negate Fact #1. Burnett was not brave; he was irresponsible.
Like with the Brassfields last week, spelling is an issue again here; we see Bougard, Bogard, Beaugard, Beauregard, and a few other variations. One of the historians attributes it to the racism of the census takers. No doubt there is truth to that, but spelling on the federal census, and on pretty much every legal document before Social Security, is notoriously bad regardless of race. No one should watch this episode and think that just because your family was white your family records are free of spelling errors or that your family name is spelled wrong just because your family was black.
Who Do You Think You Are is less a show about genealogy and more of a family history scavenger hunt. Find a clue in Place A and you are sent to Place B. Find a clue in Place B and you are sent to Place C. Bettis learned in Paducah that his great-great-grandfather Abe Bougard filed a lawsuit against the Illinois Central Railroad for $2,000 for injuries he sustained while walking on a track. Wanting to know more about this, Abe went to Frankfort, Kentucky to learn about this lawsuit.
In Frankfort, Bettis was shown the documents related to the case. First he learned that Illinois Central did not like to lose cases, and with its team of lawyers, fought cases all the way to the Supreme Court. Then he discovered that Abe’s lawyers were famous for representing the poor against big companies and probably did so pro bono (or perhaps for a percentage of the settlement, which is how plaintiffs’ attorneys make their money). Finally he saw that Abe could not sign his name; there was only an “x” around which said “his mark”. Bettis seemed so upset by that, and interpreted it as a sign that Abe was probably born a slave. It is a fair assumption (and, as it turned out, correct), but illiteracy was common at that time period regardless of race. For example, my 3rd great-grandfather died without a will, and his wife Mina, my 3rd great-grandmother, filed papers of administration. Mina, an Eastern European immigrant, also could not sign her name, and there was an “x” with “her mark” around it in place of a signature. There is plenty to be sad about in genealogy, but in my estimation illiteracy ranks very low on that list.
The show built up this court case as a battle between the good guy against the evil corporation, which I have reservations about given how only limited information about the case was revealed. The librarian who showed Bettis the records invoked the specter of racism; Abe’s case would have been heard by an all-white jury of landowning men. And just as he was about to read aloud the verdict, the show cut to commercials for what seemed to be the twentieth time. It was a cheap move, and I knew right then and there that Abe won his case. But the show’s director and editor should be ashamed of themselves. Cutting to commercials at that moment was a soap opera-like way to extend out what was really minimal drama.
When we came back from commercial, we learned that yes, Abe did win, although less than the $2,000. This made Bettis very happy because it appeared to him to show that Abe was a man of integrity. I will grant that it was a big deal for Abe, a poor black man in Kentucky, to win that case, but I will not concede that winning a court case is a sign of integrity. Perhaps I have spent too much time around lawyers (I am one myself), but the ideal of a court case and the reality of it are two entirely different things altogether. Abe may have been an upstanding man of unimpeachable integrity, but winning a court case, even against a railroad, even in Kentucky, even at that time period, is not proof positive. The jury is an idiosyncratic institution; who knows why it decided as it did.
The librarian in Frankfort told Bettis that if he wanted to hear the story of the court case, he would have to go to Paducah. A historian in Paducah who worked on the railroad remembered that when he began working there some of the older workers who were in their 70’s talked about this case. I have to say, I find that highly dubious and very convenient as it allowed Bettis to again posit that Abe was a man of integrity. Then this historian showed Bettis an engine like the one that injured his great-great-grandfather. It was big and heavy. It is amazing that it hit Abe, and he still survived.
Bettis wanted to know for certain about whether Abe was born a slave. Again he turned to Ancestry to find Abe’s death certificate (it’s there, I looked), and he found out that Abe was born while slavery still existed and his parents’ names were Jerry and Liza. Yes, it turned out that Abe was indeed born into slavery. Jerry and Liza (Eliza) were slaves of a Joseph Bogard, and that was how Abe got his surname. In Bogard’s 1841 will, he left all his property including his slaves to his wife Mary. Using dower lists, Bettis was able to trace Jerry, Eliza, and Abe through 1860 when Mary died and her property was divided. Abe was sold for $1363 and separate from his parents. He was about 10. I wondered however, given that Jerry and Eliza were purchased by a man named Bogard, and Abe was purchased by a man named Hand, if these two men were brothers-in-law and they were dividing Mary Bogard’s estate as her heirs. Not germane to the story necessarily, but it was something I was curious about given what happened next.
Bettis asked if Abe ever saw his parents again, and as it turns out, he did. In the 1870 Census, Abe was living with Jerry. The show spent virtually no time on this discovery, but I looked it up for myself, and I think it is one of the most interesting documents of the Bettis family history. Abe (here Abram) was indeed living with Jerry. Eliza was not there, but there were also three other Beaugards (the spelling in 1870) living with them: Mary who was 24 (two years older than Abe), Frances who was seven and Elizabeth who was one. More interesting is that while Jerry is listed in the census as black, the four other Beaugards–who presumably were his children–were all listed as mulatto. Again, presuming that these are his children (the 1870 census does not list relationships), that would indicate that Eliza was also of mixed race. And given that the youngest child was one-year-old, and that at her birth Eliza would have been around 47, there is a strong possibility that Eliza died in childbirth or just afterwards.
Some of this is speculation, but it is no more speculation than assuming a man has integrity because he pressed charges or won a court case. The story this episode told was manufactured and in some cases blatantly deceptive. I suppose there are only so many ways to tell a story about slavery and have still be of interest to television viewers. Nevertheless, this story did not let the facts speak for themselves. It was so coated in speculation and legend, that I think the show made a mistake by producing this episode, which is something I have never thought before.
Next week appears to be either Helen Hunt or Rita Wilson. NBC wasn’t telling in the previews.