On this Sunday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? at 10/9c on TLC, Motown legend and icon Smokey Robinson dives into his late mother’s family history. He searches for answers behind the mystery of why his grandfather disappeared from his children’s lives, and finds a man tangled in a swirl of controversy. Then Smokey uncovers the story of his great-grandfather, and comes face to face with an unbelievable history.
Anyone in my generation is familiar with Smokey Robinson, nicknamed “Smokey Joe,” from his days with The Miracles beginning in the mid-1950s through his more recent continuing performances even though he’s no youngster anymore.
You can hear his infamous “Agony and “Ecstasy” here.
One of the aspects of this episode that I really enjoyed was that Smokey seems so “real.” He’s not an actor, and you can tell that what he says is absolutely sincere and often, the same exact emotions we feel as genealogists. It’s so easy to relate to him. In fact, I checked the We’re Related app, just to see, with no luck.
Smokey’s music is iconic, as is the man himself. Someone many can identify with, struggling through and triumphing over poverty, infidelity, drugs and many other stumbling blocks that life has to offer.
As it turns out, his ancestors, and probably many of ours as well, struggled with the same temptations in one form or another.
I have one thing to say to Smokey Robinson – “I feel you!”
Many people whose ancestry reaches back into the times of slavery find pursuing their genealogy somewhat difficult, but they aren’t the only people with this problem. I have the exact same issues with one of my family members who just seems to “disappear” from time to time, and in both cases, Smokey’s and mine, it has nothing to do with slavery at all. It has to do with human choices!
Smokey begins by telling us the story of his parents. His mother, Flossie Mae Smith, born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1907, died when Smokey was 10, and as he said, “the world stopped.” She was his closest friend. Such a sad moment. Even more than half a century later, these early painful memories are so close to the surface.
Smokey’s parents were divorced when he was 3, so he didn’t know much about either side of his family. He did know that the Warr surname was one he had heard on his mother’s side, but he didn’t know how it connected and was anxious to find out. Smokey said he knows that his mother is going with him on this journey.
Yes, Smokey, I’m sure she did.
Smokey met with a genealogist at the LA Public Library to review what he did know, finding census records showing his mother as a child in the 1910 census. However, that record proved to be confusing, because while his mother was age 2, and his grandmother’s marital status was married, her husband was not listed with the family.
Who was the grandfather and where was he? Why was he not with the family in the census? Why had Smokey never heard one thing about the man?
I swear, I think Smokey and I must be related, because my father’s side of the family is full of this kind of intrigue. It’s fun when it’s someone else’s story, but it’s not one bit fun when it’s your story AND you can’t find the next step.
Thankfully, Smokey had help.
Smokey was off to Memphis, Tennessee where he met with both an archivist and a professional genealogist at a restaurant in old town that I thought sure had something to do with the show, but apparently did not. I kept waiting for the genealogist to say, “And this is the building he owned” or “where he worked,” but it didn’t happen. I would have loved to have vicariously sampled some southern food.
Smokey found his grandfather, Ella Smith’s husband, Benjamin J. Smith, in various records in Memphis, including a 1914 divorce record. That does explain why Smokey had never heard of him, but it doesn’t explain where he was on the 1910 census.
Smokey says, “I want to know where he was.” Can I ever understand that feeling. How DARE our ancestors be missing in a census!
Smokey knows that his uncle, Dewey, was born in 1901, so by inference he knows that his grandmother was married to Benjamin Smith since at least 1900 until their divorce in 1914.
Or does he?
Enter Euzelia – the other woman. Except no, maybe she wasn’t the other woman. Maybe his grandmother was.
GRANDMA??? The other woman?? Nooooooo
No one wants to think of grandma as the other woman. Surely, there is some mistake here.
Looking at the 1900 census, sure enough, Benjamin was married to Euzelia. Ok, so maybe they got divorced.
They did, in 1902.
But Uncle Dewey was born in 1901?????
Smokey said, “I am very confused.”
Like I said Smokey, I feel you.
But then, but then….they found Benjamin in 1910.
In Birmingham, Alabama.
Doing the last, and I mean the VERY last thing you would have expected him to be doing.
I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but you will be…let’s just say…shocked.
Smokey got it right when he said that his grandfather was “A Player” and he didn’t mean in musical terms.
Having reached the end of the Smith line with Benjamin, Smokey shifted to his grandmother’s side of the family to see if he could discover where the Warr surname came from – which involved a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Unlike grandfather Benjamin’s death certificate which listed his parents as “unknown,” his grandmother Ella’s death certificate listed her parents as Adam Warr and Sarah, surname unknown.
Ella was born in 1889, in Fayette County, near Memphis, so Smokey has already gone back quite some time using her death certificate information. Once again, using the census, they found Adam Warr in 1870, living with his family. With a lot of digging, they discovered one document where Adam Warr gave a deposition, in his own words. That was an amazing discovery, actually, given the circumstances…and something we all hope for. Those are the only words from Adam’s mouth that Smokey will ever hear.
Since they were looking at original documents, the “X” where his grandfather signed was also by his own hand.
The genealogist told Smokey that she had found the location where Adam Warr lived, in Fayette County, Tennessee. So back Smokey went, to Fayette County, outside Memphis.
Roots in the Land
Smokey is a man after my own heart. He had to go back to his ancestor’s land. He was drawn there. He wondered if his grandmother, Ella, visited there often. That’s probably where she was born. This is the field where the grandmother he knew and loved would have played as a child. She walked here, and so did her parents, Adam and Sarah.
Smokey needed to stand where Adam stood. Where Adam lived, where he worked, and probably, where he breathed his last.
Adam’s bones as well as Sarah’s may even rest on this land.
Smokey is simply “overcome with joy.”
This is such a positive, uplifting story. I was sorry to see it end. But isn’t that the best way to feel at the end of anything. I hope you enjoy it on Sunday evening as much as I did during the screening.