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Who Do You Think You Are?: Lionel Richie

March 04, 2011 07:30 PM by Shayla Perry

This week on NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, former Commodore and legendary soul singer, Lionel Richie, embarks on a journey that he can only describe as a “spiritual awakening.”

Born in Tuskegee, Alabama, Lionel Richie planned on becoming an Episcopalian priest before turning to music. In 1968, he joined the funk group, The Commodores, which propelled him into superstardom and an even more successful solo career, with hits like “Hello” and “Dancing on the Ceiling.”

The Oscar and Grammy award winning artist and his former wife adopted a young Nicole Richie, and later, he had two more children.

Growing up living in “the bubble,” where all of the black people he knew were scholars and doctors, Richie was protected from the segregation and racial upheaval that most other African Americans were experiencing at that time, but he credits his time with The Commodores for allowing him to travel the country, take off the blinders, and see what was going on around him.

After gaining a new understanding and appreciation for his family, Lionel now wants to know more about his lineage, to see what propelled these “giants” to achieve so much in life.

In Alabama, Lionel meets with his sister, Deborah, to get some information on his grandmother to start his search. Deborah shows Lionel “Grandma Foster’s” social security document, where they discover for the first time that their grandmother’s real name was Adelaide M. Brown– not Foster, and the name of her father, Louis Brown.

In Nashville, Lionel searches marriage records and finds Louis Brown’s wife, married to a “J.L. Brown.”

In 1897, Brown’s wife, who was only 15 when a 50 year old Brown married her, sent a formal complaint requesting to be granted a divorce. Her reason for divorce? She claimed that their age difference was just too great, and that they had little in common.

The official divorce decree reveals that Brown’s wife was abandoned for more than 2 years before the marriage was over.

At the Metro Archives in Nashville, Richie meets with an historian to find out more about the life of J.L. Brown and why he would leave his wife.

In a city record book, they find Brown listed with “SGA Knights of Wise Men.”

In another listing, he’s listed as an Editor of the Knights of Wise Men. But who are the Knight’s of Wise Men?

Meeting with an expert on African American fraternities, Lionel discovers that the group, founded in 1879, was created to assist blacks in the community. This group, and others like it, propelled the modern Civil Rights movement, and Richie’s great grandfather was a Supreme Grand Leader. Not only did he lead the organization, he also wrote the rules and guidelines!

In a newspaper clipping, Richie finds that the group began to dissolve during the time of the small pox epidemic, and they later had financial trouble when the organization’s treasurer ran off with the little money that remained after their growing debts were paid.

By 1915, the Wise Men are no longer a strong, national organization, and no other records of their existence were found, but it seems as though J.L. Brown was not involved in the corruption of the group, to Richie’s relief.

Knowing what he’s learned about the organization, Lionel is given some insight as to why Brown’s marriage also dissolved during that time– he was focused on fighting to save the organization he worked so hard to develop.

In Chattanooga, TN, Lionel Richie finds his great grandfather listed in the Census on Ancestry.com. In the 1929 Census, he discovers that John L. Brown worked as a caretaker at a 20+ acre cemetery in his nineties! And to his surprise, he is shown a photo of J.L. Brown.

Brown’s death certificate reveals that he was buried in the cemetery where he worked, Pleasant Gardens Cemetery. Brown’s father, Morgan Brown, is listed on the certificate, but in the space where the mother’s name should be listed, it simply reads: “Don’t Know.”

At Pleasant Gardens Cemetery, an all black burial ground, Lionel Richie finds the section where John Louis Brown is buried, and it brings him to tears to know that the man once walked those very grounds.

Now wanting to know more about Brown’s childhood, Lionel meets with an historian and is shown a Colored Man’s Application for Pension filled out in 1920, when J.L. Brown was 80.

On the application, he finds that John fought in the Civil War.

As part of the application, Brown must name his “owner,” and in that space is the name Morgan W. Brown. It is then that Richie realizes John L. Brown was not only a slave, but that his “master” could have also been his father. This discovery also sheds light on the reason that Brown’s mother is listed as unknown.

To find out more about Morgan W. Brown, and to see if he and Morgan Brown are the same person, Richie continues his search.

He quickly finds out that Dr. Morgan Brown had a son, Morgan W. Brown.

The doctor owned a plantation, and in his diary in 1839, he writes about a Mariah, one of his slaves, who had just given birth to a boy named Louis. It is unusual for a slave owner to write about one of his slaves in his diary, which seems to confirm Richie’s suspicion that the doctor fathered J.L. Brown, but he then finds out that Dr. Brown was 80 at the time. Though it’s still possible for him to be John’s father, it’s also just as possible that his 39 year old son, Morgan W., is the father.

Still shocked to now know the name of his great grandmother, Lionel is even more surprised at what he finds out next.

In Dr. Brown’s will, written in August 1839, during Mariah’s pregnancy, he writes that she should be freed from slavery and that when the child is born, he should also be freed. Dr. Brown also leaves Mariah and John a house of their own and declares that the boy should be guaranteed 2 years of schooling, which was illegal at the time.

Richie is shown a picture of Morgan W. Brown, and though he’s still hurt by the fact that his ancestors once owned slaves, he finds comfort in knowing that they had compassion for his great grandmother, and did what they could to ensure that their family was taken care of.

What did you think of Lionel Richie’s family history?! Tell us about it in the comments below!

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Photo credit: NBC

Topics: NBC Reality TV Shows, Who Do You Think You Are? |

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3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Who Do You Think You Are?: Lionel Richie”

  1. Alice Says:
    March 4th, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    It is interesting to note that Morgan W. Brown was a U.S. Federal Judge – I don’t know why the show failed to mention this very interesting aspect of Lionel’s heritage.

  2. Alice too Says:
    March 7th, 2011 at 8:29 am

    I like the way the program was presented, with compassion for those in the past who lived in a different era. Mr. Richie could have come out of this experience (tracing his roots) with bitterness, but he looked for, and found, the good. Others could learn from him.

  3. Anne Hall Says:
    April 8th, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    After watching Spike Lee, Vanessa Williams and Lionel Richie and their stories I, too, have pondered over their feelings regarding their white ancestors. I’m sure all three knew, or strongly suspected, even before their searches that they had white ancestors. Verification must bring very mixed feelings toward their white ancestors because of the slavery and class issues that are a big part of how their lineage came together.

    I think it’s possible that family lines blurred when intimate relationships developed between white owners and slave members of plantation communities. Some of those relationships must have involved affection to lessor or greater degrees, but social class was not to be breached even in the cases of the greatest affections. Lionel Ritchie’s story reminds me of the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemmings story. Sally was, I believe, a half sister to Thomas Jefferson’s wife who predeceased him as the two women had the same father. One daughter was from his white marriage and the other with one of his slaves. Thomas Jefferson had a number of children with Sally Hemmings and his special affection led him to provide benefits above and beyond other slaves on his plantation, they were not equal to his white
    children. I think it is possible that Mr Richie’s ancestors had a similar connection and that’s why Mariah and her son were named in Dr. Morgan’s will where he made provisions for them after his death. When viewing the photograph of John Louis Brown, I thought he looked more Caucasian than African American and it is possible that his mother, Mariah, was also mulatto as her mother may have been the concubine of a white member of Dr. Brown’s family or in-laws as was the case with Sally Hemmings’ mother. With a
    mulatto mother and probable white father, John Louis Brown
    would have been more white than African-American and so he looks in his picture.

    For those who are interested in reading about these types of family connections I would suggest reading about Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Christo) and Amanda America Dixon, a mulatto heiress in Georgia. There are many more such stories and each one is unique.

    Coming to terms with our individual and collective feelings regarding the history of our interracial connections is upon us as our American society is turning a big corner in it’s makeup and acceptance that those of us who share deep generational roots in America are going to discover more and more cases of mixed ancestry such as those mentioned here.

    Not every union, whether sanctioned by society or not, enjoyed a loving equality between a man and woman. Not every pregnancy was conceived in harmonious circumstances. We cannot change the past and we cannot change those who came before us. We can, however, seek to understand them in terms of their place in our family histories as persons shaped by the era in which they lived. I believe we all have ancestors who run the gamut on a continuum of likability and admirability.

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