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Faculty take history to prime time

LOGOHow do you get America’s couch potatoes fired up about history? Team celebrities with historians — two UCLA faculty among them — in a prime time TV reality show about the quintessential search for one’s roots.
“Who Do You Think You Are?,” on NBC-TV, drew some 7 million viewers for its March 5 premiere featuring Sarah Jessica Parker. UCLA History Professor Stephen Aron appeared in the episode along with other experts who guided the actress along an ancestral trail through the Salem witch hunts and the California Gold Rush. In the show’s second episode, History Professor Brenda Stevenson helped NFL star Emmitt Smith track his family’s history back to generations of slaves in the south and their origins in Africa.
Professor Aron, who is also executive director of the Institute for the Study of the American West at the Autry National Center, offered the inside scoop on his appearance. Much of the research on Parker’s family history had been done even before the show contacted him, he said, adding that several Ph.D. alumni from his department worked as researchers for the show. The producers initially consulted him for his thoughts on the direction they were heading with what they’d found.
Sarah Jessica Parker (left) and Professor Stephen Aron.
Professor Stephen Aron (right) helped Sarah Jessica Parker understand her ancestor who left his pregnant wife in Ohio to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush.
Later, Aron traveled to Ohio to tape a conversation with the actress at the Cincinnati Historical Society. His role was to breathe life into the data, turning names and dates, facts and figures into the storytelling underpinnings of history.
To heighten the episode’s drama, the producers made sure that Aron and Parker didn’t meet each other until the cameras started taping.
“They deliberately kept us separate so she didn’t know what she was going to learn,” Aron said. “Her responses showed genuine surprise,” he said, when he presented her with key documents about a 19th century relative named John S. Hodge. At the age of 23, Hodge left his pregnant wife in Ohio to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush.
Although the five-hour videotaping was ultimately edited to all of about five minutes, Aron said, he enjoyed Parker’s “wonderful questions. … She was very sweet and incredibly interested.”
Professor Brenda Stevenson spoke with NFL star Emmitt Smith about his family's history as plantation slaves in Virginia.
Professor Brenda Stevenson spoke with NFL star Emmitt Smith about his family's history as plantation slaves in Virginia.
For the Emmitt Smith episode, Professor Stevenson, an authority in African-American history and slavery, traveled to Virginia, where Smith’s ancestors were slaves in the 19th century. The show videotaped a segment with Smith and Stevenson at the Berry Hill Plantation, which, Stevenson noted, had been one of that state’s largest plantations with more than 500 slaves. As with Aron and Parker, Stevenson and Smith met for the first time at the taping before she revealed any information to him.
“The surprise element makes for an emotional connection,” Stevenson said. “He was genuinely moved. That really enhances the historical piece of it, making the audience more interested in history.”
While their segment didn’t make it to the edited episode, Stevenson talked with Smith about the fact that many slaves from Virginia were sold to slave owners in other states when Virginia switched from labor-intensive tobacco production to grain.
Smith’s great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Mariah Puryear, was among them, according to a genealogist who later presented Smith with a document of the sale: She was auctioned to a slave owner in Mecklenburg County, Ala., in 1826, when she was 11 years old.
NFL star Emmitt Smith.
NFL star Emmitt Smith.
“I have two daughters — one 10, the other 13 — and can’t even fathom this,” Smith commented to the genealogist. “They treated my people like animals.”
Stevenson said that her conversation with Smith resumed after the taping, when they joined others from the show for dinner — an experience that earned her extra bragging rights with her family, all of whom are longtime fans of Dallas Cowboys, one of the teams Smith played for. “Emmitt is very intelligent,” Stevenson said, “Even though he’s not a student of history, he was able to really understand what I was talking about and draw some of his own conclusions.”
Coincidentally, Stevenson’s African-American family is also from Virginia. Having previously done extensive genealogical research on her own family, she was able to talk with Smith about his family’s likely origins in what was known as the slave coast of Benin, Africa. Smith’s episode concluded with his making a visit to that region.
Actress Parker, with Aron’s help, said she gained a new perspective on her gold-hungry relative John Hodge, who died without striking it rich.
Smith with an archivist in Monroeville, Ala.
Smith with an archivist in Monroeville, Ala., where records of his family were found.
“When I first heard about him,” Parker told Aron, “I thought — Drat! I’m a relative of a dreamer, I’m a relative of a fool.”
“You’re the relative of an archetypal American,” Aron interjected. “Your family was so deeply entwined in this central saga, which … other than the Civil War, is the most important event in the 19th century.”
Both Aron and Stevenson, who have previously appeared on the History Channel and other shows, said they welcome the opportunity to talk history in the mainstream media.
Said Stevenson: “Most people are wrapped up in the mythology of the South and don’t really understand the kinds of things that occurred on both sides of the line, black and white, slaves and plantation owners. This allows me to pull away that mythological cover.”
Programs like this, Aron said, challenge him to “translate what I do in scholarship and teaching and try to reach a much broader audience. … Hopefully something like this inspires some people to go back and learn more about American history.”
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