"Who Do You Think You Are?" Season Two: Episode Five

by Julie Hill

Posted on March 8, 2011

This episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" followed famous signer Lionel Richie, who came into the experience curious to learn more about his maternal grandmother's line. He didn't leave disappointed. Richie's search focused around his great grandfather, John Louis Brown. Despite having grown up with his grandmother, he never heard any mention of his great grandfather.

Richie worked with local historians to discover J.L. Brown was the founder of an African American fraternal organization called Knights of Wise Men. 'Knights' was a national organization that provided support and financial services to black communities. This was one such group that helped pave the way for the civil rights movement.

Though the 'Knights' ultimately dissolved sometime in the early 1900's, Richie was proud to learn that his great grandfather had played such an instrumental role in Tennessee state history. Though it appears he died with little means, J. L. lived a long life and certainly had a positive impact on his community.

After learning these details, Richie wanted to dive deeper into J. L.'s childhood and family. With the help of historical documents, he was able to identify J. L.'s father as Morgan Brown and slave owner as Morgan W. Brown (likely a son and father pair). In a remarkable twist, Morgan Brown Sr.'s will specified that J.L. Brown, and his mother, Mariah, should be freed upon his death. Additionally, they should be allotted their own cabin, and J. L. should be provided two years of schooling. In mid-19th century Tennessee, these instructions were quite generous and progressive for the time.

In the end some questions go unanswered, like did J. L. grow up as a slave on the plantation, or was he freed like Morgan Brown Sr. instructed? But ultimately Richie is happy with what he learned about his ancestors who turned out to be true civil rights pioneers. This was a powerful episode, which was a pleasure to watch, but in some ways raised more questions than answers for us! What did you think?

If you're interested in tracing your African American heritage, start by reading helpful articles about this topic on Archives.com.

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