Associate Professor Helps Actor Blair Underwood Trace Family History

Meredith College Associate Professor Dan Fountain served as an expert on NBC’s primetime show “Who Do You Think You Are?” and helped actor Blair Underwood uncover an intriguing piece of family history.

The primetime show helps celebrities explore their roots by tracing their family trees. The episode aired on February 24, 2012. Watch the episode, view deleted scenes and learn more »

Fountain was contacted by an NBC researcher who had read his book, “Slavery, Civil War & Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity, 1830-1870.”

“They wanted experts writing in the field of African-American religion,” Fountain said. “It was a thoughtful, scholarship-driven production looking to fully understand the subject, not just get the best sound bites.”

The researcher shared stories from the family tree of an unnamed celebrity and was asked to provide context to the public documents the research team had found. Later, Fountain had conversations on the phone and over Skype with the show’s production team before he was asked to travel to Lynchburg, Virginia, to shoot segments for the show. He spent two and a half days in Lynchburg, including full day of shooting.

Fountain wasn’t told the star’s identity until he met Underwood on the set. He speculated that it was Blair Underwood because the crew mentioned it was a male celebrity named Blair.

Fountain was asked for his expert opinion on one of Underwood’s ancestors, Sawney Early, a former slave who had been institutionalized in the 1890s after he had killed a neighbor’s cow. Newspaper reports said Early had been shot twice, and called himself “the second Jesus.”

“Who was this man and what would people of his time have thought about him? After we had as clear a picture of him as possible, there were three possibilities,” Fountain said. “He could be insane, he could be a criminal or he could be someone in a period of conflict.”

Fountain believes Sawney Early “became a target in a deeply divided community. This was the Reconstruction, a period of transformation in the U.S. and in Southern society in particular.” The community where Early lived was evenly divided along racial lines, which Fountain said were the types of places where conflict occurred.

“This type of story played out all over the South,” Fountain said. “Any black leader who stuck out was a threat to the whites’ potential control of the county.”

Fountain also believes Early may have been a conjurer, a position of religious importance in slave and freedmen communities. Early was “someone with different religious ideas, which could have been interpreted as insane or imbalanced.”

Producers asked Fountain to keep his theories about Sawney Early from Blair Underwood. As the camera rolled, the actor was hearing what the research showed and Fountain’s ideas about Early for the first time.

“They asked me to go through the sourcing in chronological order, with the bigger moments at the end. I was to lead him but to let him wade through it so his understanding could be captured on film.”

Fountain said Underwood was adept at following the information he was offered.

“He was like working with a very good student on a project you both enjoy in an area of interest for you both,” Fountain said.

Learn more about studying history at Meredith College

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