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'Genealogy Roadshow': A New PBS Program Is Part Mystery, Part Family Drama

The four-part series might inspire you to do some family-history sleuthing of your own  

By Suzanne Gerber

Researching our family roots has become a wildly popular hobby, so it’s no surprise that PBS is launching a new show that brings that theme to life.
Beginning on Monday, Sept. 23, and airing for the next three Mondays (Sept. 23–Oct. 14, 9–10 p.m. Eastern time; check your local listings), PBS adds a different kind of “roadshow” to its lineup. Genealogy Roadshow, of Irish descent, bills itself as “part detective story, part emotional journey.”
The program combines history and science to unearth compelling individual family stories that also connect to larger community stories. “Genealogy Roadshow is an engaging, innovative program that reveals the bigger picture of our nation’s past, present and future,” said Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive and general manager of General Audience Programming for PBS. “It also shows that no matter one’s heritage and background, everyone has a place in history.”
This season’s installments focus on families in four iconic American cities — Nashville, Tenn.; Austin, Texas; Detroit; and San Francisco — interested in tracing their own roots and ascertaining whether they are connected to major historical events and figures.
A little background: The cities were selected because the producers felt they represented a “crossroads of culture, diversity, industry and history, with deep pools of potential stories.” The next step was bringing on board experts in genealogy and DNA who applied their forensic skills to use family photos, documents and other clues. They also reached out to local historians to help establish a larger context.

The Interconnection Between People and Their Cities
Even if you think you know about the four cities in the series, they may surprise you — and knowing more about each place can deepen your appreciation of the show.
Nashville, for instance, is a lot more than the capital of country music or even a significant Civil War setting. Its original industrial boon came from shipping. After the Civil War, it experienced an explosion in architecture, education and the arts. The city has had an active Jewish community for more than 150 years and over the past several decades has become home to many Mexican, Cambodian and Iraqi immigrants. Most recently a wave of Kurdish immigration has given the city the nickname “Little Kurdistan.”
“Keep Austin Weird” is the motto of the Texas capital, which takes great pride in its singularity. Beyond being the seat of the state’s government, Austin is also Texas’s center for technology, culture and education. Its rich culture includes Mexican, Asian, African-American and European communities.
Largely known for cars, Motown and now, sadly, filing bankruptcy, Detroit is a proud city whose residents want the world to know what else it has going for it. For one thing, Motor City has one of the most diverse populations in the country. First settled by French-Canadians, Detroit attracted Europeans and Middle Easterners and today boasts the largest Arab-American community in the country. Another (dubious) distinction is that the city supplied 75 percent of the liquor during the Prohibition era — but on the bright side, it was the birthplace of the ice cream soda.
Over its centuries of colorful history, San Francisco has been famous for being the epicenter of religious missionaries, the transcontinental railroad, the gold rush, a major earthquake and multiple cultural revolutions, including hippies, gay rights and technology.
Tracing Your Roots
Next Avenue has shared a number of stories of people whose lives have been enhanced by doing their own genealogical research. In her personal essay, expat Emily Berns Heyser fulfilled a longtime dream by tracing various branches of her diverse family tree.
“The generous payoff in intriguing facts and unexpected insights that accompanied my family-history research was another, tremendous, surprise," she writes. "Like many Americans, I spring from mostly humble people with a variety of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. I had failed to ask questions of my grandparents when I could have and only on one side of my family did I have anything more to work from than a few concrete facts and anecdotes.”
While living full-time in Germany, Berns Heyser relied mostly on personal connections — and Google, of course — and describes how, with the “dogged determination of a detective following a trail of clues, I was able to track him and many other ancestors across states, countries, continents and an ocean. I discovered where they had come from, when and how they had left, plus I resolved several family mysteries — all from the comfort of my home.”
(MORE: The Surprising Things I Learned Researching My Ancestors)
For some genealogical enthusiasts, the project is more than just a hobby. Next Avenue blogger Nancy Collamer relates the story of Thomas MacEntee, who enjoyed a decades-long career as a technology trainer, writer and analyst for various global law firms. “But after the last one filed for bankruptcy in 2008,” Collamer writes, “MacEntee found himself reeling from the experience of ‘being tossed out on my butt.’” That’s when he decided it was time for an encore career.
At the time, both NBC and PBS had created TV shows related to genealogy, plus new software products and websites for family historians were exploding. Sensing an opportunity, MacEntee enrolled in Boston University’s Online Genealogical Research Certificate Program, a monthlong course that also included 30 hours of homework a week. In the process, Collamer reported, he “immersed himself in the genealogical community, commenting on blogs, asking for advice from people he respected and joining professional associations.” Today MacEntee is enjoying a whole new career as a genealogical researcher.
(MORE: Career Shift: Turn Your Hobby Into a New Job)
Elizabeth Wray’s interest in researching her family bloodlines was sparked by watching PBS’s Downton Abbey.
Despite her name, she says, she never related to being British. In fact, she fancied herself descended from far more exotic stock, like “an Indian or black cowboy.” And yet she knew holding on to that fantasy “was fighting an uphill blood battle. My father was a Shakespeare professor. My mother was a theater director with a penchant for that most English of Irish writers, Oscar Wilde. I was named after Her Royal Highness Elizabeth I and brought up in the Anglican Church. We ate roast beef and Yorkshire pudding every Christmas. I majored in . . . English.”
So when a friend who was starting a genealogical research company called to see if she’d like him to do some sleuthing for her, she jumped at the chance. Her first questions were “Is there a non-Anglo hiding out in my family tree? What accounts for my dark-skinned grandfather? Is there any truth to our being related to John Adams?”
I won’t give anything away, but let’s just say she was pleasantly surprised by his findings.
(MORE: Downton Abbey Is in My Blood)
Are you ready to do some personal family-history sleuthing? All of the above articles contain great suggestions for getting started. And the good ol’ U.S. Social Security Administration can be helpful in tracking down specific individuals. To obtain information from them, you will first need to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
Since a deceased person doesn’t have any privacy rights in this country, you can get a copy of his Application for a Social Security Card (form SS-5), which contains his name, date and place of birth and parents' names that were given when he applied for the number.
A few things to keep in mind: The administration did not begin keeping records until 1936, so they don’t have any records about people who died before then. And you will be charged the cost of searching the records, even if information isn’t found.
The fee for searching records when the SSN is known is $27 ($29 when the number is unknown or incorrect). The check or money order should be made payable to the Social Security Administration, which also accepts all major credit cards.
(MORE: Genealogy Research Help From Social Security Records

Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Read More
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