Last Friday morning, one of my Facebook friends and a favorite genealogist, Lisa Lee, posted a “press release” on her wall announcing that the Walt Disney Company had made a deal to purchase Ancestry.com. The company planned to create a thrill ride called “Memory Lane,” which would “take guests on a magical journey through their own ancestral history.” The ride would require an advance booking and a three-generation pedigree chart to give operators time to “create a customized experience,” complete with photos, sounds, images and historical facts about their ancestor’s lives.
Some Facebook visitors saw through it right away. I, following the journalistic tenet, “Even if your mother tells you, check it out,” searched for other evidence of the acquisition.
It was an April Fool’s joke. But good one.
Later that evening, I watched the NBC version of Who do You Think You Are? a program in which celebrities trace their roots. I’ve learned a lot about Lionel Richie, whose great-grandfather J. Louis Brown, was a principal organizer and Supreme Grand Archon of the Knights of Wise Men, a fraternal organization for black men that formed after the Civil War. It was affirming to hear Richie talk about his community in Tuskegee, Ala. The adults who surrounded him and his sister, Deborah, were doctors and lawyers and holders of PhDs. These adults protected their children from the horrors of Jim Crow. “If the Klan was coming to protest through the streets of Tuskegee, our parents put us to bed early,” said Richie, who was raised on the campus of Tuskegee Institute. (That episode got me thinking about, Richie’s daughter Nicole, and what the experience of tracing one’s ancestry must be like for adopted children. )
Other episodes this season have featured Sex in the City’s Kim Cattrall and character actor Steve Buscemi.
The April 1 episode on actress Gwyneth Paltrow hit home when it revealed that her maternal great-great grandmother, Rosamund Stout, was born in Barbados. It was fun to see genealogist Pat Stafford walk Paltrow though Barbados historical documents at the country’s national archives, which we visited in December looking for clues to my father’s family. With Stafford’s help, Paltrow learned that her great-great grandmother was orphaned at 13 years old and at 18 boarded a commercial ship to the United States. Pedro Welch, a professor at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, offered Paltrow some background on the social climate on 19th-century Barbados and helped her understand why Rosamund and her older sister , the only passengers – and perhaps the only females – boarded a ship carrying salt and Colonial products. The commercial vessel was less expensive than a passenger ship, Welch explained. He added that after slaves were emancipated in 1934, lower-middle-class white women lost their jobs to free black women with the same skills who were willing to work for much less. Welch also noted that the male-female ratio was so out of proportion on the island that the prospects for marriage for these young white women would have been limited.
“So they were competing with other white women for the few available men,” Paltrow concluded.
“And with some black women as well,” Welch pointed out.
It made me think about the factors at work when my father, skilled as a printer, took off for Bermuda and then Harlem in 1923, while his brother, trained in the same profession, remained in Barbados.
NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” is an American adaptation of a BBC documentary series. I have not seen any of the BBC episodes. They are not available on Netflix, and when I try to watch clips on the web I’m told it’s not available in my area. (Maybe I’ll catch a few episodes when I get to London tomorrow.)
The NBC program is sponsored by Ancestry.com.
The Disney/Ancestry “press release” may have been an April Fool’s ruse, but with the resurgence of interest in tracing our roots, don’t be surprised to find a “Memory Lane” center theme park near you where visitors could begin to fill in their family trees.
In the meantime, my own journey is far more thrilling than any roller coaster ride. With every turn of a page, microfilm reel or conversation with a relative, I never know what I’m going to find. Who knows, Gwyenth might be a distant cousin!