Spike Lee on “Who Do You Think You Are?”

by Scott Jangro on May 1, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are - Crazy History - Video - NBC.com.pngIf you’re in the U.S., did you watch this season’s last episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” I haven’t watched all the episodes yet, but this one, to me, was the most powerful. I guess that’s why the saved it for last.

Film-maker and outspoken black-rights advocate, Spike Lee went on a journey to Atlanta, Georgia to learn about his slave roots on his mother’s side.

As he uncovered his family history, he was confronted with some very powerful facts and ideas.

His GGrandfather Mars Jackson was a major land-owner after the emancipation, owning over 80 acres. He did not learn of why or how he lost that land.

His GGGrandfather worked in a Cotton Gin that was converted into a pistol factory. He was making pistols that were used against those who were fighting for his freedom.

That same GGGrandfather was taken by none other than General Sherman’s army as they razed that town and pistol factory, and likely never heard from again.

His GGGrandmother was “Mulato” and likely the product of her mother being raped by their slave-owner.

He met his current, likely third cousin (twice removed), in real life and they had an emotional moment together on her sofa where they together faced the truths about the things that their ancestors did and lived through.

Thankfully, as far as I know, all of my ancestors were from New England and fought for the Union. I can only imagine how it must feel for genealogy researchers who have roots in the south to deal with the idea that their ancestors, not very long ago, had slaves and in many cases treated and traded them like objects.

As I watched this episode, I couldn’t help but sing this verse of Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs” in my head.

In a haze these days
I pull up to the stoplight
I can feel that something’s not right
I can feel that someone’s blasting me
With hate and bass
Sending dirty vibes my way
‘Cause my great great great great granddad
Made someone’s great great great great grandaddy slaves
It wasn’t my idea
It wasn’t my idea
It never was my idea
I just drove to the store
For some Preparation H

This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” and the others can be seen on nbc.com.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

ngairedith May 2, 2010 at 12:15 am

I found that a very interesting story of our need to know our ancestors and ‘where we came form’ so did some more research and found these interesting facts about that series:

6,300 hours of research went into the series

An average of more than 425 hours of research went into each show

Researchers did preliminary work on more than 20 trees, then whittled that down to 7 due to the celebrities’ schedules

A core team of 30 genealogists worked on the episodes, aided by scads of others who visited archives, did record lookups and more

Places the crew researched around the world that didn’t make it into the show include Germany, England, Ukraine, Russia, Ireland, Korea and Canada

Repositories visited included the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society and other state archives, local courthouses, public libraries, churches in New York City and France, and synagogues in Ukraine.

Filming all seven episodes took 9.5 months

… and Spike discovered when searching for his ancestors that the family’s surname isn’t Jackson – it’s Woodall, name of the their slave owner, James Woodall.
In the 1860 slave schedule or census of the day I am assuming that all slaves were to take the name of the slave owner? as Mars wife Lucinda’s parents were Wilson and Matilda Griswold, (Spike’s great great grandparents) the name of a man, Samuel Griswold, who owned many slaves.
When Spike wants to know more about Matilda’s mulatto designation and why she was living in the Grier household he is told that Samuel Griswold’s daughter Eliza married Ebenezer Grier. Matilda was likely ‘gifted’ to Eliza because slaves who were fathered by their slaveholder were often passed to other family members.
So it is likely that Samuel Griswold was Matilda’s father – and Spike’s great-great-great-great-grandfather

A very moving story on how or why one human thinks they have a right to own another

All this must also make finding ancestors a huge challenge, yet find them they do


Scott Jangro May 2, 2010 at 11:17 am

Wow, those are some amazing stats about the show that I hadn’t realized.

I’ve seen many people comment on how easy they make it all seem, and that’s a fair point, but one must remember this is a prime time TV show and the first priority is that it is entertaining, which in my opinion it is very much so.

I expect that we’ll see some online, amateur variations of the show spin out of WDYTYA.


Dave_DC October 15, 2010 at 2:12 am

Scott, you wrote:

“Thankfully, as far as I know, all of my ancestors were from New England and fought for the Union. I can only imagine how it must feel for genealogy researchers who have roots in the south to deal with the idea that their ancestors, not very long ago, had slaves and in many cases treated and traded them like objects.”

First of all, when you get a chance, check out the following website: http://www.slavenorth.com

The author documents quite thoroughly the existence of slavery in New England and the mid-Atlantic states during colonial times and even after independence.

Secondly, in my own background, which one would consider typical “New York / New England,” I have found two instances of slavery, so far. In one, a “servant, black Peter” was willed to an heir. In the second case, I found an ancestor known to have been part of a plantation-type economy that existed in the Newport area of Rhode Island. African and American Indian slaves were forced to work in towns and on farms both in Providence Plantations and on Rhode Island. Providence and Newport were major slave ports in their time.

In may not be the case in your particular family, but in general, it would appear the “North” also has plenty to atone for when it comes to the issue of slavery.


Kathleen Campbell November 20, 2010 at 1:14 pm

My ancestors on my mother’s side were from the south, and fought for the Confederate Army. On my father’s side, my gggrandfather was an Irish immigrant who was a captain in the Union Army. At the same time they were at opposite sides of the same conflict, I wonder if they had ever met on the battlefield. My southern ancestors did own slaves, not something I’m very proud of, but I have to forgive them. Their sins against humanity were out of ignorance, they were raised in that ignorance that made them unable to see the light and beauty of the people they enslaved. It was a heartbreaking part of American history that never should have happened, and I think that people who do geneology end up finding more about their ancestors than they want to know.


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