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Family Roots

Genealogy Takes Center Stage on TV

Two shows help spark interest and shed light on researching family history

Curtis Bell has a bad case of “roots fever.” He developed symptoms of a genealogy addiction after watching every episode of two recent prime-time television shows: PBS’s Faces of America and Who Do You Think You Are? on NBC.

Bell picked up the basics watching celebrities explore their roots: Start with yourself and work backward, interview elderly relatives and use online databases to check vital records, the census, newspaper obituaries, ship-passenger lists and military documents. His first step was tracking down older family members, including a 74-year-old second cousin. “He’s like a living encyclopedia—he remembers names, dates and locations,” says Bell, 46, a pharmaceutical industry consultant from Nyack, N.Y.

Viewers paying close attention can pick up more complicated tools. In an episode featuring football star Emmitt Smith, Bell learned about the 1860 slave schedules available on Ancestry.com that he hopes will help him trace his large family. “One of my ancestors, way back, may have had 31 children by three sisters,” says Bell. “I want to verify the oral history.”

Already nearly 87 percent of Americans say they are interested in discovering more about their family history, according to Harris Interactive. Local societies and libraries have seen evidence of mounting interest. With the interest in the TV shows about genealogy, “we immediately got an upsurge of phone calls and people ringing the doorbell asking how to find their family history,” says Lauren Maehrlein, director of education at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYGBS).

Compelling Stories

Formats vary on the two shows; both are still available for online viewing. Faces is more of a “big reveal.” Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates presents detailed family trees to a diverse group of well-known names, such as Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert and Mehmet Oz, M.D. Director Mike Nichols learns family lore is true—Albert Einstein was a cousin. Actress Eva Longoria finds out her roots on the Texas border reach back 10 generations. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who knew little about his family, is stunned to receive an 18th-century genealogy that survived China’s Cultural Revolution hidden in the wall of a house.

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