Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana’s family were among several New Orleanians who gained new insights into their ancestry by participating in the “Genealogy Roadshow,” a collaboration between WYES-TV and the national Public Broadcasting Service.
Nine hundred people applied online for the chance to appear on public television while learning more about their family histories. The Montanas, for example, had always wondered how they had come to own a 147-year-old shotgun house in the 7th Ward.
“I heard things from my daddy and my mother as a young kid,” said David Peters Montana, Tootie’s brother.
“I wanted to know where my great-great-grandmother Adele came from,” Lila Luster-Stipe said. “We’re a Creole family and did everything in that house — births, weddings, birthdays.”
Because Luster-Stipe had seen Alex Haley’s “Roots” on television, she wanted to know more about her family tree. She searched ancestry.com but could only get so far.
“There were so many other Adeles,” she said.
By searching records in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., “Roadshow” genealogists proved how her great-great-grandmother Adele Eugene acquired the house.
“Rarely do we find one document that will tell us everything,” genealogist Joshua Taylor said.
The show’s research team might spend up to six hours digging through the backgrounds of approximately 60 people per episode and up to 20 hours of extensive research on about 20 people per episode.
“The research is the underestimated part of the show,” said Carlos Ortiz, executive producer.
Rich Venezia, a New Jersey researcher, located Adele’s husband in the 1870 census and then went to fold3.com for additional information about him. He used New Orleans city directories, Google Books, New Orleans Public Library and various online newspaper databases, finding Adele’s death certificate in a warehouse of the St. Louis National Archives.
“We go as far back as possible,” Ortiz said.
Almost all the records the program uses are accessible to the public, but genealogists know how to put the pieces together.
The research team, located all over the country, is able to figure out in weeks what it might take a layperson at least five years to unravel, Taylor said.
When “Genealogy Roadshow” produced the show in St. Louis, genealogists told a mystery writer that her mother was part African-American, although she had always passed as white. Learning that fact was “life-changing in a positive way” because she discovered a branch of the family she never knew existed, Ortiz said.
“This is kind of like a game show, but instead of a prize, you learn your history,” he said.
Another New Orleans family featured on the “Roadshow” assumed their great-grandfather, who disappeared in 1880, had run off to the California Gold Rush but learned otherwise. An Italian couple who met at Rock ’N’ Bowl and later married always joked about whether their ancestors might have known each other in Sicily. “Genealogy Roadshow” often reveals family secrets that enrich people’s lives.
“I’m just learning about these great people that we were related to. It makes me more connected to this land,” David Montana said.
“We are a powerful, rich culture in New Orleans,” the chief said.
The show was taped at the Cabildo and the Board of Trade. Also participating were the Federation of Genealogical Societies, Genealogists.com, Best Books & Rich Treasures, Bluebonnet Regional Branch Library, DAR, Le Comité des Archives de la Louisiane and LS3 Studios.
What the families discovered cannot be revealed until the show’s season continues on PBS in January 2015.