March 09, 2012 07:03 PM by Candace Young
Last week on NBC‘s Who Do You Think You Are? we watched as Reba McEntire found out how her family came to America. This week, NFL superstar, Jerome Bettis discovers courageous and determined ancestors as he delves into his family history. Keep reading for highlights…
Jerome Bettis, aka, “The Bus,” led the Pittsburgh Steelers championship team before retiring. Jerome is now a commentator and family man. He learned about the Bettis side of the family from his father before he passed, and is now interested in delving into the history of his mother’s family.
As he begins the journey, he is mindful that he may encounter slavery in his past. Jerome begins his search in Detroit with his mother and Uncle Butch. His mother starts off talking about her parents and grandparents in the Bougard family. Jerome learns that his great-grandfather, Burnett, mysteriously disappeared. They check the death records and find one for a Burnell Beaugard, which might be a lead.
Paducah, Kentucky is the location where Jerome meets with a historian to find out more. He discovers that Burnett and Ruby divorced. The records once again have spelling discrepancies in the last name. The reason for the divorce was that Burnett abandoned Ruby for more than one year – leaving her the house and two young boys to raise.
Wanting to learn more about what kind of man Burnett was, Jerome checks newspaper clippings. He finds a story from 1897 saying Burnett, a colored boy, swore out a warrant (pressed charges) against his boss for hitting him over the head with a spoke at his job. The historian explains that ‘colored boy’ was a racial slur used against blacks at the time, regardless of their true age. Going ahead a couple of days, they find a report that the charges against the white boss were dismissed because it was found that the ‘darkie’ advanced on him in a threatening manner. Jerome is amazed that Burnett had the fortitude to even stand up to his boss in this time.
In 1902, Abe Bougard, Jerome’s great-great grandfather, sued a railroad for $2000 (a huge sum at the time). Jerome is intrigued and digs in to find out more. He views the petition, which claims a train hit him, and notices that Abe couldn’t sign his own name – he simply made his ‘mark’ with an ‘x’. Jerome becomes choked up. The case went to trial – with a jury of white landowners. The railroad’s defense was that Abe was trespassing, which Abe and his attorneys refuted. Jerome is stunned and pleased to find that the jury found in favor of Abe – with damages fixed at $300.
Full of pride, Jerome makes his way to the Paducah Railway Museum to speak to a man who knows more about Abe’s case, and takes him to see one of the massive steam locomotives like the one that hit Abe. Upon viewing Abe’s death certificate, he learns that his date of birth was not known, but he was about age 73. Jerome figures he was born into slavery. He also finds out Abe’s parents were Jerry and Eliza, with no last name. As Blair Underwood did, Jerome wants to confirm the link to slavery.
The historian tells Jerome that slaves often took the last name of the slave owner – they find a Joseph Bougard, and confirm that he owned Jerry and Eliza, and that they were passed down in a will like property. More records show that Abe was definitely born into slavery as he is listed as a slave at age 4. Jerome finds further evidence showing that they were sold at auction when Joseph Bougard died. Jerome is devastated to learn that Abe was sold to a different owner from his parents at age 10, and they were separated.
Jerome visits the spot where Jerry, Eliza, and Abe lived until Abe was age 10 and they were auctioned and separated. It’s profound for him to walk the same land they did, and Jerome yearns to find evidence that the family was reunited at some point.
The 1870 census for the area indicates that the family was together again. Jerome is pleased, but remains sobered by the struggles and strength of his ancestors.
Jerome returns to Detroit to share his findings with his mother and uncle. His mother marvels at the strength of the Bougard men. Butch is anxious to make a trip to Paducah himself.
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Photo credit: DJDM/WENN.com, Judy Eddy/Wenn.com