American football legend Emmitt Smith's slave roots

By Matt Elton, 11 March 2010 - 3:26pm

US genealogist Kimberly Powell on how Emmitt Smith's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? revealed the power that family history has to make the past personal

Saturday 13 March 2010
Kimberly Powell, professional genealogist and author
Read more about the new US series

"history is not 'his story' anymore. History is really my story right now."

When NFL football legend Emmitt Smith voiced those words near the end of this week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? my heart said “yes!” I had already decided to write this week about how genealogical records are so much richer than just names and dates, and then Emmitt summed up my feelings beautifully with his heartfelt words. This episode was especially moving because it focused on using records and events from history to tell a very personal story. It brought the account of Emmitt Smith’s ancestors to life for him in a very real way, and it brought them alive for those of us watching across the country as well.

Emmitt’s family tree is filled with stories that capture the essence of one of America’s darkest moments; that of slavery. A 1900 U.S. Federal Census Record from Monroe County, Alabama, showed that Emmitt’s great-great-grandparents, William & Victoria Watson, were born in 1862 and 1864, respectively, indicating that they were both born during the Civil War and may have been born slaves. Victoria’s death certificate added a very important clue – the names of her parents, Prince Puryear and Annie McMillian. The unusual surname of Puryear offered a glimmer of hope that the family’s pre-Civil War origins might be found – which isn’t always the case when researching African-American families..

The 1870 U.S. Federal Census turned up more clues: Prince Puryear and his family (including young Victoria) were listed in Monroe County, Alabama. Additional Puryear households were also found on the same page, including men of the right age to make them potential brothers of Prince, and a 55-year-old Mulatto woman named Mariah Puryear who was possibly their mother.

A white slave-holding family named Puryear was also found in Monroe County, and when the records of this family were examined for a potential connection to Emmitt’s Puryear ancestors, the estate inventory of Mary Puryear turned out to hold the key. In it she listed Mariah and her children, by name: “Mariah and children Henry, Mary, McTom, Victoria and Prince Albert.” Emmitt was especially moved by the hard reality of finding his ancestors listed as property alongside the horses and teaspoons. 

When Emmitt later discovered that a man named Samuel Puryear was possibly Mariah’s father, and a slave trader as well, he got really choked up. It must have been difficult for him to learn that slaves were often bred just like horses, and that in many cases the horses were held in higher regard by their owners.

I always find it emotional and shocking to look at the estate inventories of slave holding families and find myself having to determine whether a particular list of names and monetary amounts is a list of slaves, or a list of horses and mules. You could also see the obvious scorn he felt for Samuel Puryear, the man who once traded in humans like cattle, but he also recognized that the man may very well be part of who he is (although this theory was a bit of a leap because no records directly linked Samuel as the father of Mariah, other than that she was passed down through the family).

Seeing his ancestors’ names in documents being passed from one person to the next, and visiting the place in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, where his slave ancestors may have been auctioned off to the highest bidder, really brought home to Emmitt the shame and horrors of slavery, but also just how resilient his ancestors must have been to live through that experience and come out stronger. “This story, my personal story, will shed light on a whole lot of issues... My eyes have been opened even wider than they were before,” he shared.

Emmitt’s journey was still not over, as DNA expert Megan Smolenyak sat down with him to share the results of several DNA tests he had taken. This episode primarily focused on Emmitt’s autosomal DNA, chromosome pairs that include random combinations of DNA from all branches of your ancestry – not just your direct paternal or maternal line.

While the paper records could not get Emmitt back to his ancestors in Africa, his DNA could tell him that he did indeed have at least a few white relatives in his family tree, and that his African ancestry from both his mother and father traced back to the area around Benin, on Africa’s “Slave Coast.” His emotional trip to an African village there really completed his journey of discovery.

Family history is not all about facts and documentation, it is also about learning who you are and where you came from – through stories, history and experiences.

Of course, what really made this story so deeply touching was Emmitt himself, and the obvious connection he felt with his ancestors. He was even taking notes along the way! As Megan Smolenyak told me after meeting him, “Emmitt is the nicest guy on the planet. Truly.”

Take it further


The next episode of Who Do You Think You Are? will feature actress and series producer Lisa Kudrow and air on Friday in the US on NBC. You can read more about upcoming episodes here.


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