The TLC series, “ Who Do You Think You Are?” returns for a new season this Sunday, April 3 at 9/8c on TLC, premiering with Aisha Tyler.
Aisha Tyler uncovers the astonishing tale of a prominent ancestor whose struggle to keep his illegitimate son a secret made the papers.
Aisha discovers the impressive tale of her two times great-grandfather, who dove headlong into controversy, took a stand for his people, and left a mark so great that he is commemorated today by one of America’s capital cities.
Actress and producer Aisha Tyler knows very little about her mother’s side of the family, and wants to know if it has any connection to her unstoppable drive and ambition. She’s reached out to her great aunt and family historian, Sheila Gregory Thomas, who Aisha hopes can provide some clues about her maternal side. Sheila is the sister of Aisha’s grandfather, Eugene Gregory, who died when Aisha was in her 20s.
Aisha receives a letter from Aunt Sheila and learns the name of her 2 x great-grandfather, Hugh Hancock; and that he attended school in Oberlin, Ohio, and died when Sheila’s mom, Hugh Ella, was just a teenager. Sheila writes that although she has done a lot of research into their family history, that is as far as she got. Armed with this information, Aisha heads to Oberlin, Ohio to see what she can find out about her 2x great-grandfather Hugh Hancock.
Aisha arrives at Oberlin College to meet with a sociologist. Aisha learns that her 2x great-grandfather attended Oberlin’s college preparatory school between 1872 & ’73, and to her surprise, hailed from Austin, Texas. In 1835, Oberlin began accepting Black students on an equal basis, one of the few contemporary institutions to do so. This move made Oberlin a hub for racial equality at a time when slavery still reigned in half of the United States and very few African Americans had access to education.
To learn more about Hugh in Oberlin, Aisha tracks him down on an 1860 census, which shows he is 5 years old, attending school, and listed as “mulatto,” and living with no family members. Christi explains that “mulatto” was essentially a designation based on how white an African American person looked. This means that Hugh was born Black in Texas in 1855 – because of Texas law, he almost certainly would have born a slave.
Wondering how a 5 year old from Texas made it to Oberlin and who his parents were, Aisha finds a newspaper clip from 1880, which reveals that a reporter from Cleveland had investigated Hugh Hancock’s paternity, and narrowed it down to two people; a politician from Texas or a another politician who was a candidate for president, both with the same name – John Hancock! Aisha is shocked to see an article centering on her 2x great-grandfather’s paternity and heads off to another archive in Ohio to see if she can determine who her 3x great-grandfather was.
At the archive, Aisha finds the entire article about her 2x great-grandfather’s paternity, and discovers that her 3x great-grandfather was a white Southern politician from Texas named John Hancock, who gave his son money – but would not allow him to acknowledge him in public. Both John Hancock’s were famous, or infamous men, one known as General John Hancock and the other as Old John Hancock. But which one was Hugh Hancock’s father? Where is Y DNA testing when we need it!!!
Unfortunately, a 1900 census reveals that Hugh is living in Evanston outside of Chicago with his wife Susie and four daughters. Among them is Aisha’s great-grandmother Hugh Ella. Without a male to test, Y DNA would not be helpful, so that tool is not available. Additionally, we don’t know if General John Hancock and Old John Hancock shared a common ancestor, but without a male from Hugh’s line, it’s a moot point.
In order to find out more about John Hancock’s politics and the relationship with his son Hugh, Aisha heads to Austin, Texas.
At the Texas State Archives, Aisha discovers that her 3 x great-grandfather was a prominent southern unionist who opposed rights for black people. Aisha is disturbed to uncover the great hypocrisy of her ancestor who fathered and financially supported a black child, but actively worked against his kin’s rights.
Digging back into her 2x great-grandfather’s story, Aisha comes across an article that reveals Hugh Hancock moved back to Texas as an adult and was charged for assault!
In order to find out more, Aisha heads to the Travis County Archives. At the archives, Aisha is unable to uncover more details about the assault charge, but is able to review an 1890 court case file for Hugh Hancock. Aisha discovers that Hugh was indicted for running an entire gambling set-up, and was the owner of a bar in Austin called “The Black Elephant.”
The elephant had become the symbol of the Republican Party by the 1870s, so the saloon’s name could indicate it was a gathering place for Republicans of color. While saloons were a place for gambling, drinking, and relaxing, they were also crucial centers for community organization and political participation – saloons in the 19th century were the places where voting, campaigning, and other political activities took place. For the Black community in particular, saloons and churches were places to organize against racial injustice..
Curious about her 2x great-grandfather’s involvement in politics, Aisha uncovers an 1896 article which reveals something very unexpected about Hugh – but you’ll have to watch the episode to discover that detail. No spoiler here! In a very real way, Hugh Hancock was one of the last men standing.
Finally, Aisha reads a 1910 Obituary for Hugh which proclaims that he was a well-regarded man held in high esteem by his community in Austin. As a final part of her journey, Aisha heads to a local address the historian has recommended she visit.
Aisha approaches a home in Austin and reads a Texas historical marker commemorating this former home of her 2x great-grandfather Hugh Hancock, a successful black businessman of the city. Aisha contemplates Hugh’s accomplishments in Austin, despite the challenges he faced to get there. She’s proud to have found the origins of her drive and passion in her blood.
Aisha’s ancestor’s story is both fun and educational with a lot of unexpected twists and turns. Tune into TLC Sunday evening at 9/8 central.