While its popular series “Antiques Roadshow” and “History Detectives” helps people discover the origins of their art and objects, PBS’ new series “Genealogy Roadshow” helps them find out about themselves. Based on an Irish series and premiering Sept. 23, it kicks off in Nashville, followed by stops in Detroit, San Francisco, and Austin, Texas.
“It’s almost like a game show where instead of a prize you find out about yourself. People leave completely changed by the experience. It’s very emotional,” says executive producer Stuart Krasnow, noting that more than 1,000 people applied. “Six are featured in each show, and there are two or three smaller stories. We had genealogists there to go through the process with people we invited. Because it’s a show about mysteries, you write the last chapter first and work backward. The main stories were ones where we would find out something spectacular.”
Kenyatta D. Berry, president of the Association of Professional Genealogists and a specialist in African-American ancestry research, worked with some of the participants. “There was an African-American man who was a servant for a white family and a descendant of the white family came in with a picture, wanting to know who he was. We didn’t have a name or much else to go on. A woman in Nashville thought she was related to the musical Carter family. We found out a lot of information; sometimes they’re proven right and sometimes wrong, and sometimes we find something completely unexpected.”
One of Krasnow’s favorites appears in the final episode, airing Oct. 14. “There’s a woman from Texas, Denise Garza Steusloff, who’s Latina and wanted to know if she was descended from Jews that fled the Spanish inquisition. She celebrated Jewish holidays her whole life but didn’t know whether she was really Jewish or not. It was very emotional when we told her she had Jewish ancestry.”
Celebrity genealogy shows like TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” and PBS’ "Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr." have piqued interest in ancestry searches, “But they don’t show what goes on behind the scenes. We show the process a lot more,” compares Berry. “I share a lot of what I know about history and where to find information.”
Sites like Ancestry.com and the digitizing of records have made that information more accessible, notes Berry. A lawyer-turned-genealogist, she works with FamilySearch.org, owned by the Mormon Church, which is known for their impeccable recordkeeping. “But people often get to a point by themselves and then realize they need help. If you hit a roadblock the first thing you should do is look at census records, then you can try immigration records or for African-Americans, slavery records,” she suggests. “Typically, we can get back to 1870 for African-Americans; once you get into slavery it becomes more of a challenge.”
The host of “Genealogy Roadshow” is Emmett Miller, who traces his own black, white, and American Indian roots to Barbados, Ireland and reservations in Amityville, N.Y. He was fascinated by the stories the show uncovered. “A woman came to us because she thought she had relatives on the Mayflower and as it turned out she had four. But more interesting than that, during the Civil War, one of her ancestors that fought had PTSD after the war, was hospitalized, eventually went nuts, accused his wife of cheating on him, shot her, tried to kill himself but the gun jammed. He was sent to a mental institution and eventually hung himself.
“A favorite story of mine,” continues Miller, “was this guy who looked like he’d just come off the boat from Norway, but he had a question about whether he had African-American blood. It’s real people with fascinating histories, and we get their questions answered. It’s a wonderful history lesson.”
Krasnow hopes viewers become more curious about their own ancestries and start digging into their pasts, “and never spend time with the older members of their families without asking a million questions about their parents and whatever they can remember. Families’ oral histories are the baseline of everything,” he says. “Find that stuff out because you’re going to want to know about it one day. You can videotape, too. There’s no excuse not to document everything.”
Genealogy evidence as seen on the show. (Photo courtesy Shawn Collie)