Prior to his appearance on NBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, there wasn't much information online about Blair Underwood's family tree. Just trying to locate the maiden name of his mother takes some digging, but the first footprint lies in testimony given by Blair at a U.S. Senate Hearing in 2000 on the subject of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (AML) in which he talks about his grandmother, who died from the disease.
"Her name was Betsy Scales from Buffalo, New York. She was a sweet, hardworking, loving woman, a single mother in the 1930's. She raised my mother who was born in 1932 by herself....My mother, Betsy Scales' daughter, Marilyn Scales, later to be Marilyn Underwood, now has multiple sclerosis....My grandmother passed away while I was in high school. Because I loved her so much, it was ironic that she died on Valentine's Day."
A news article in the Washington Post dated 18 May 2000 offers additional details, the two sources combined giving Bessie's place and date of death:
"'My grandmother Bessie Scales died of this disease, which is also called ALS--for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,' the 35-year-old Underwood told us yesterday. 'I was 14 at the time and she was living with us in Warren, Michigan.'"
Additional footprints of Bessie M. Scales and her daughter, Marilyn (Blair Underwood's mother), hide among the pages of the 1940s and 1950s Buffalo city directories, online at Ancestry.com. A death record for Bessie Scales is elusive, however, unless searching the Social Security Death Index by location and date of death only (no name). [Note: Just one of many examples of how extremely helpful the SSDI is for 20th century genealogy research].
The footsteps of a woman named Bessie M. Royal, who died in Warren, Michigan, on 14 February 1978, lead back to Campbell County, Virginia, with a stop in McKeesport, Pennsylvania (right up the road from me) along the way. In Campbell County, another footprint in the online Obituary Index of Lynchburg's Jones Memorial Library leads to the discovery that Bessie lost her mother, Ada Belle White, when she was just 8-years-old, explaining why Bessie was living with her grandparents, Thomas and Mary White, in 1920 -- less than ten years after her parents married in Lynchburg on 23 November 1910.
Additional online footprints lead to the marriage of Ada's parents, Thomas N. White and Mary Elizabeth Scott on 14 October 1875. To the marriage of Mary's parents, Delaware Scott and Nancy Jane Foster on 27 August 1850. And back to Delaware's parents, Samuel Scott and Judith Humbles, free negroes in early 19th century Amherst County, Virginia. As with much online research, these are only footprints, necessitating followup research in the original marriage records mentioned here, as well as records such as Amherst County deeds, historic newspapers, and the Amherst County (Va.) Free Negro Register, 1822-1864. It is amazing, however, just how many footprints you can find online to build the foundation of a family tree.