Thursday, March 22, 2012

Blair Underwood's African Ancestral search

Golden Globe nominated actor, director and producer Blair Underwood first became a household name for his portrayal of charismatic attorney Jonathan Rollins on the celebrated NBC drama, L.A. Law. Throughout his 25 year career, Blair has highlighted important African-American issues through his work with charitable organizations and by the roles he chooses. He is a five-time winner of the coveted NAACP Image Award. Blair lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their three children.

Blair Underwood's search sends him to the American South to learn startling news. Then Blair travels to Cameroon to reconnect with his African ancestors.

Blair Underwood's trip to Africa video:

"Family to me means everything... they've provided a strong foundation," Blair says as he talks about the importance of his ancestral search. Blair's father is a retired army colonel who was in the service for 27 years. "He was an army officer in the 1960s, which was a rarity," Blair proudly says about his father. His grandfather was also a trailblazer by becoming the second African-American police officer in Steubenville, Ohio.

Blair starts his journey at his parent's house in Petersburg, Virginia, where his brother Frank Jr., who has been working on the Underwood family tree for years, tells him about the ancestral "brick wall." When anyone starts looking at their family tree, they will eventually run into a wall where they cannot find any more information on their lineage. African Americans tend to hit that brick wall about 150 years ago because records for slaves were never kept. Blair takes an DNA test to help his family shatter the wall.

Having just learned his great-great-grandfather Sonny Early was in a mental intuition at the age of 78, Blair looks at previous census records to find out how he might have ended up there. The census from 1880 shows that Sonny Early was a farmer and had not yet been sent to the institution. Stepping back 10 more years to 1870, Blair finds that Sonny worked as a blacksmith. Joseph Shumway attempts to analyze the 1860 census to find more information, but before the Emancipation of Slavery in 1863, slaves were not listed by name in any census, only by number as property of their owner. Thus creating "the wall" Blair's brother warned him about.

To learn more about why Sonny went from a skilled blacksmith to a mental institution at the end of his life, Blair meets with Dr. Dan Fountain. Dr. Fountain searches an old newspaper database from 1876 to see if he was listed in any local papers. They find an article that calls Sonny a "pestiferous darky who claims to be the second Jesus." The article then describes that Sonny was accused of killing a valuable cow and assaulting a man named Mr. Chambers. Dr. Fountain finds another article that describes Sonny as a religious zealot and someone who survived a gunshot to his jaw. Dr. Johnson tells Blair that he now believes Sonny might have been a conjurer for the African-American community. Blair learns that conjurers came out of a West African tradition and served a vital purpose for slave communities. They negotiated the boundaries between spirits and humans and offered their followers protection from a slave master. They often served as leaders of the community, and because of that, the white population viewed conjurors as a threat.

Dr. Johnson takes Blair to the site where Sonny lived, according to the records. Blair learns that the farmer who tried to kill Sonny, Mr. Chambers, lived on the parcel of land next door. We discover that Sonny killed Mr. Chambers' cow because it was eating Sonny's corn, which he used to feed his family. Blair's estimation of his relative changes. "He has a justifiable reason to be indignant," Blair says. Given that he was a leader of the local African-American community, Blair and the researcher wonder if perhaps the pejorative newspaper accounts of Sonny were in fact a smear job orchestrated by the white community that feared him.

Now that Blair knows the dramatic story of Sonny Early, he looks to another branch of his lineage. He starts to delve deeper into Ada Belle White and her father Delaware Scott. Researcher Shumway is able to find an 1860 census revealing a freed slave who owned property, which was very unusual for an African American in Virginia. "That's pretty incredible," Blair says. Now Blair is curious to discover how his ancestor was freed before the official Emancipation of Slavery in 1863. He meets with historian Dr. Eva Sheppard Wolf who shows him a Register of Freed Negroes from 1849. It describes Delaware as being born free in 1823. "How is that possible?" Blair asks. Blair is then able to follow further documents that state the Scott family was free all the way back to the 1790s and were in fact prominent landowners.

Blair heads to the first African-American Baptist church in Virginia, which the Scott family was instrumental in helping build. Through further documents and tax records, Blair learns that his fourth-generation great-grandfather, Samuel Scott, owned two slaves in 1838. Dr. Eva Shepard explains to Blair that "most freed black slave owners in Virginia owned family members." They would buy family members who were not freed in order to care for them and protect them. "It makes sense, you take care of your own," Blair realizes. "What else that's been illuminating is that there is such deep roots in this state of Virginia that I had no idea about," Blair says. "Now it makes sense why I feel like such a Virginian."

Blair's DNA test arrives, so he meets with Dr. Ken Chahine to review the results. They were able to find out that Blair's DNA is comprised of 74% African DNA and 26% European DNA. When they look at his European DNA they find that he is rooted to people from France, Switzerland and Germany. "That's hilarious because I've always felt a connection to France... got engaged in Paris, named my first child Paris... I never knew why." For the African results, Blair is associated with several tribes in West Africa, and they've specifically found a cousin named Eric Sonjowoh from Cameroon who matches Blair's DNA.

Blair and his father travel to Cameroon, Africa to meet his distant cousin. "What is staggering to me is the fact that my ancestors came from Cameroon," Blair says as he drives with his father through the Cameroon countryside. "To connect family, it's a dream come true." Blair arrives at his cousin's village to a tribal celebration. "Eric, I cannot thank you enough for making this all possible," Blair tells his newly found cousin. Blair tells Eric that this is such a special moment for him and his father because their ancestors were forcibly separated, and all these generations later, they have finally come full circle and have been reunited. "I feel certain voids have been filled that I've never known I had," says Blair. "Who I thought I was when we started this odyssey is different than who I know I am today. It's been incredible." 
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