COLUMN: Family mysteries lead to first ‘hero shot’

Published 7:52 pm Wednesday, January 28, 2015

I love a good mystery almost as much as I love a good story. I started researching my family’s genealogy for a taste of both and was not disappointed.

Thankfully, I have a sister and cousin who are just as interested in family history as I am. Renee and Sukari have been willing to put in countless hours in small courthouse basements and dark corners of libraries where we would read old census reports on microfilm until our eyes glazed over.

Our efforts were fueled along the way. My Aunt Elizabeth interviewed a few distant relatives on a trip she took to her native New Orleans more than 20 years ago. From those interviews, she traced some of our roots to Ethiopia, by way of Haiti.

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The stories got us started, but we never could confirm them.

Inspiration came again when we took a trip to Butler to research my dad’s side of the family.

We knew our great-great-grandfather, Ben Thompson, had changed his last name, but no one knew why. Our research could find no record of his identity prior to 1880. Some had said his original name was Sykes.

On this particular trip, we discovered a book that mentioned a Ben Sykes. “August Reckoning” was about a man and his five friends fighting for voter rights in Butler. Whenever they would have a brush with the law, a man named Beloved would come and bail them out. Beloved was not able to save the man from being lynched. After the lynching, his five friends (including Sykes) fled and were not heard from again.

The place and time period fit and the unusual name, Beloved, led us to believe we were on the right track. Ben Thompson’s eldest grandson was named Beloved at his request. Growing up, he had told Uncle Beloved he was named after a great man.

We inherited my great-grandmother’s family photos. We would stare at some of the unlabeled ones and search for familiar features, our grandfather’s ears or great-aunt’s eyes.

Included in the lot was a photograph of our great-grandfather in uniform. He was a Buffalo Soldier who fought in the Spanish American War.

That family line was a bit easier to research because of the name. Even today, if we come across a Lotterberry, we know we’ve found family.

We discovered one haunting mystery looking up the Lotterberry name. For three years in a row, a death certificate was filed for an infant on April 1. We didn’t know what to make of it.

We took our unanswered questions to producers of the Genealogy Roadshow, a series on PBS, and they were intrigued. They did some research and invited our family to appear on the show to learn the results.

We drove down to New Orleans with my parents and the show filmed us at the Board of Trade.

It was an odd experience. For the segment, producers posed us, as if for a family photo. We stood in a group with bright lights coming at us from different angles and a make-up artist powdered our faces.

The host stood about three feet in front of us with her own lights and camera pointing at her.

After she revealed the results and we taped our segment, we were posed again for what they called the “hero shot.” We had to focus on one person in the group and smile, and then slowly turn our heads to the camera in unison. The only thing that helped from feeling completely awkward doing our hero shot over and over again was that I knew how it would look. I’ve seen the shot tons of times on reality shows, as someone was introduced (think opening credits of The Amazing Race or The Biggest Loser). But, it was surreal to do and took way, way more takes than I would have imagined.

Our last filmed segment was with a producer, who asked us how we felt about the results, the show and the overall experience. I’m not at liberty to discuss the results before it airs, but I can say the show was just what we needed to fuel our next round of research.

Genealogy research can be daunting. The further you get, the more roadblocks you hit. But, the reward is the connection you find to family and history. A bit of my history airs Feb. 3 at 7 p.m.