Episodes: 27 (hour)
TV show dates: March 5, 2010 – May 18, 2012
Series status: Cancelled
Performers include: Mocean Melvin (narrator)
TV show description:
This documentary series is adapted from the British version of the same name. It follows popular celebrities as they trace their roots back through their own genealogy. Lisa Kudrow is an executive producer for the series that is part of a partnership with Ancestry.com.
Each episode features a different celebrity and usually focuses around a truth that is waiting to be uncovered or a family legend that needs to be investigated. The celebrity meets with genealogists and different experts from all over the world as they trace their relatives back through records to learn the truth about their families.
Not only does the series give a glimpse into the unknown lives and backgrounds of these celebrities, but it’s also an interesting take on history, as we see the different walks of life that make up our nation. Often we find that the celebrities’ lives may have even crossed paths with our own lives.
Kudrow herself has researched back through her own family tree, along with celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Emmitt Smith, Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Spike Lee. These celebrities turn up ties to royalty, war heroes with Purple Hearts, ancestors who died in the Holocaust, enslaved ancestors, and ties to the Gold Rush.
Episode 27 — Paula Deen
Paula Deen is a celebrated chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and television personality, world-renowned for her hearty Southern cuisine. After the success of her first restaurant, The Lady and Sons, Paula landed her own show on the Food Network. Paula lives in Savannah, Georgia with her second husband Michael Groover. Her sons Jamie and Bobby live nearby and help run the family restaurant. Paula explains that she had a wonderful childhood; she knew little pain or disappointment until the age of 19, when her world fell apart. Her father died at age 40, and her mother followed four years later. At the age of 23, Paula had two babies and a marriage that was in trouble. She didn’t feel safe anymore and developed agoraphobia, which was something she had to deal with alone. Luckily, her kitchen was the therapy that became her salvation.
Paula meets with her two sons to talk about her upcoming journey into the past. Then she climbs into her car and heads to Albany, Georgia, where she was born and raised, to talk to Aunt Peggy Ort, her mother’s sister. Paula’s name derives from her mother’s maiden name, Paul, so that’s where she’s going to start. Peggy immediately brings out a photo of Paula’s mother with her father, John Larkin Paul; his father was named John Liddle Paul. Peggy has been holding onto an important document – John Liddle Paul’s death certificate, which indicates that he was born April 3, 1860 – one year before the Civil War broke out. His parents are listed as W.B. Paul and Eliza Batts, both born in Lee County, Georgia.
Paula hops in the car and drives to Morrow, Georgia to visit the state archives and dig further into the Paul family history. Genealogist Nathan Matthews suggests looking at the 1870 census, when John Liddle Paul would have been 11 years old, on Ancestry.com. At that time, John Paul was living in the household of John and Mary Batts – even though his father W.B. Paul and mother Eliza were still alive. Nathan suggests that John Paul may have been living with his mother’s family to attend school, as there may not have been a school in his community at that time. On the census, John Batts is listed not as a farmer, but as a planter, which means he owned a plantation.
Nathan suggests checking through Georgia Archives’ general name index. Paula finds her 3x great-grandfather John Batts right away – and discovers that he served as a representative in Georgia’s House of Representatives – and that he was a judge! Nathan sends Paula to the former state capitol, Milledgeville, to meet with Dr. Bob Wilson, who has gathered some information on John Batts’ political career. Paula’s hoping to find out what kind of man her ancestor really was, so Dr. Bob arranges to meet her in the legislative chamber where he once served. Dr. Bob proffers an article stating that John Batts encouraged his legislature to get behind presidential candidate John Breckenridge, who at the time, was the only candidate in favor of slavery, and going up against Abraham Lincoln in the election…
Paula and Dr. Bob look for John Batts in the 1860 census. At that time, Batts’ estate was worth $17,500, and his “personal estate” came in at $32,000, which Dr. Bob says is close to $1 million in modern terms. Certainly, the bulk of that wealth was tied up in people, i.e. slaves. It turns out that John Batts owned 35 slaves in 1860. Paula never thought her family was involved in slavery in any way, so this news comes as a shock. She knows that if she had the power to go back in time to talk to John Batts, she would do everything in her power to prevent him from participating in the heinous act of slavery.
Paula meets with historian Rachel Shelden in hopes of learning how the Civil War impacted her ancestor John Batts. Rachel says the first step is to find out whether John Batts fought in the war by looking at the roster. He would have been about 45 years old at the time, so he’s not on the list. But did his sons fight? John’s eldest son William was indeed a soldier with the 12th Georgia Regiment, and Rachel has found some letters he wrote. The 12th Regiment was formed in June of 1861, two months after the start of the war, and William soon traveled to Richmond to await deployment. Early on, William was hopeful that the fighting would last only two months, but six months later, he was at the front and subject to the miserable conditions of winter warfare. Six months later still, William’s next letter was written from a hospital bed. Luckily or not, William’s injury wasn’t fatal, and he anticipated rejoining active duty shortly.
Paula is disappointed to learn that there are no more letters written by William Batts, though Rachel does have another folder full of documents. First up is a letter from an S.G. Pryor, who was William’s commanding officer, to his wife, written on August 9, 1862, just three months after William was wounded. Paula feels the news of William’s death on the battlefield deeply, as if it just happened. Even though she’s only read a few of William’s letters, she feels as if she knows him for the good man that he must have been. She’s surprised to find a letter from Pryor’s wife to her husband, written 21 days after William’s death. Apparently, she spent time with John Batts and his family in the days following William’s death. John was particularly upset, but took some consolation in the news that his son Billy died bravely, a good soldier at his post in the field.
Rachel takes Paula to the website fold3.com, which offers a wealth of military records. There they find a document indicating that John Batts applied for a pardon. Apparently, after the war, wealthy plantation owners like John Batts were required to apply for individual pardons for their part in the war and provide documentation that all their slaves had been freed. When Paula wonders how John Batts would have held up during the Restoration, Rachel suggests speaking with an economic historian. Paula wants to know how John Batts could have changed his life and beliefs overnight, especially after the death of his beloved eldest son. Was John Batts able to get back on his feet after the war?
On the road again, Paula makes her way to Emory University to meet with historian Dr. James Roark. Paula’s intuition is correct; James assures her that John Batts would have gone through a massive transformation after the war. He takes out a pile of tax returns, which will provide an explanation of Batts’ wealth from 1871 – 1879. He and Paula decide to go through each year and make a chart to see how John Batts fared over time. Things were looking okay until 1874, when Batt’s plantation went from 37 employees to 3, with earnings going from $2,137 to $400. Apparently, there was a massive depression in 1873; times were tough all around. Paula and James decide to jump ahead to 1879, the last year of their records. Unfortunately, John is no longer listed as proprietor – but his wife Mary is.
James has a document that explains what finally became of Judge John Batts. Paula is shocked to learn that her forebear committed suicide, shooting himself in the head on a Sunday morning. The newspaper article goes on to say that the judge had shown signs of depression for months, and his family had feared such an outcome for some time. Furthermore, this suicide and the loss of a well-respected elder cast a pall over the entire town. Paula’s heart goes out to John Batts; she feels certain that he might have withstood the vicissitudes of post-war life had his son survived. Paula admits that while she has known depression in her life, she has never lost a child and can’t judge her ancestor, since she hasn’t walked in his moccasins. James sends her off to check out the land where the Batts’ plantation once stood in the town of Smithville, adjacent to where Paula was raised in Albany, Georgia.
Paula walks the land where John Batts’ plantation once stood, finding little more than a pile of bricks, which she surmises may have been the site of the family kitchen. The land is beautiful, but for some reason, there’s a sad feeling where the house once stood. Paula hopes there were happy feelings in that house, and she’s feeling excited to tell her sons about the depth of the family’s Georgia roots. Now it’s time to go back home to Savannah to tell Jamie and Bobby about her journey into the past.
First aired: May 18, 2012. Synopsis courtesy NBC.
Image courtesy NBC.
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