NBC recently aired one of its "Who Do You Think You Are?" episodes which featured singer and songwriter, Lionel Richie. Unfortunately, I missed it, but this week, I had an opportunity to watch the video.
It's the story about the international superstar and award-winning musical genius who has written some of the best known and loved songs in popular history. The stuff of legend, Richie is an artist whose career spans more than three decades with more than 100 million albums sold. My favorite song happens to be "Jesus is Love."
Born in Tuskegee, Ala., Richie was raised on the Tuskegee campus where both his mother and his grandmother taught. Growing up he knew everything was available to him. He knew that he could accomplish anything he wanted to by applying himself and pursuing his goals.
Richie said that his parents protected him from everything; insulated him from the cruel realities of the Civil Rights Movement in the '50s and '60s. He was sheltered from segregation and safeguarded from the inequities of that tumultuous period.
The Commodores, his singing group, enabled him to see the real world. And what an eye-opening experience that proved to be! "I have no idea who the giants in my family are," said Richie. "My job is to find out the names, places and faces, so I can pass it on to my children."
That simple statement is the heart of all genealogy. It isn't about how many names we can add to our database. It's about putting a name, a face and a place to those giants in our families who came before us. And for those other individuals as well; and passing it on to our children, to our grandchildren; and to their children and grandchildren as well. "That's why we all do this thing that we do," the musician said.
So, Richie set off from Los Angeles, Calif., to Tuskegee, Ala., to meet with his sister, Deborah, who looks remarkably like him, and who lives in the house that their grandmother lived in and the house that they were both raised in. Deborah is the keeper of all things sacred and cherished in the family, and she was able to display photographs of their grandmother, Adelaide Foster.
His sister had also ordered a copy of Grandma Foster's Social Security application. She saw it for the first time when she showed it to her brother.
The Social Security application belonging to Foster indicated that her father's name was Louis Brown and that she was born in Nashville, Tenn.
Richie, then set off in search of more answers in Tennessee. There he meets with genealogist Mark Lowe at the Nashville Public Library. That's where he learned all he needed to know, to connect the dots to his family history, and even discovered that a family member fought in the Civil War.
Richie's research goes full circle. In looking back at the opportunities his ancestors were afforded, freedom from a slave owner almost 50 years before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed; the slave owner provided his great, great, great grandmother with land and a cabin in which to raise the son that he had fathered. Plus, the slave owner left enough money for her to educate his son for two years. Now, Richie understands why his great, great grandfather could read and write.
Richie's 15 consecutive top 10 R&B hits [five of which went to No. 1] and 13 consecutive top 10 pop hits [five of which also went to No. 1], stands as one of the most enviable achievements in music history.
And through us, their lives continue in spirit. We have an enormous responsibility to 'do the right thing' with the time we're given here on earth. I stressed a similar message in a recent column entitled, "Don't Waste One Day!"