On August 10, 2015, I received an email asking if I was available to assist on a research project. Once the paperwork and confidentiality forms were filled out, I was ready to begin the research on an amazing man’s ancestry. The work the show had already compiled was sent via Dropbox. Once I familiarized myself with the family of Smokey Robinson, we set out to learn more about his family. Here are some of the resources I explored:
- Freedman Records from the Memphis Benjamin Hooks Library on microfilm
- Birth, Marriage, Divorce & Death records
- Differentiating between two Benjamin Smith’s, Smokey’s grandfather. Initially I found a white man that fit the profile, but then we found Benjamin J. Smith, Minister that was the correct ancestor. He was quite a mover and I had a time tracing him.
- Marriages and Divorces of Benjamin J. Smith
- I visited two churches: Rock of Ages Baptist Church in Memphis where Benjamin preached and First Baptist Church in Bartlett where some of the family attended. I went and visited the churches; attended part of a service at Rock of Ages – great people and very helpful. Reverend George Wilburn was a great resource for us.
- Researching the white Warr Family that brought slaves over to Rossville, Fayette County. Many African Americans kept the Warr surname and we had to figure who was blood related to Smokey.
- Arthur Webb special collection at the Memphis Library
- Probate for the Warr family members
- Maps and boundary changes for the county during 1850-1900s
- New Bethel Church & Cemetery
- Visits to the Tennessee Genealogical Society & Shelby County Archives
- NARA records
- City Directories
- Joy Rosser, historian for Fayette County, TN & the Fayette County Library
- Newspapers – Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Post
- FamilySearch, Ancestry, GenealogyBank, Newspapers.com, Archives, Courthouses, etc.
1. Index to Freedmen's Bureau Marriages 1864-1865
2. Shelby County General Index Records (Deeds) 1821-1870
3. Index to Shelby County Wills (1820-1879) (1880-1900)
4. Index to Bounty & Pension Receipts for Veterans of the US Colored Troops, Memphis Freedmen's Bureau, 1867-1871
5. Index to Obits in "the Appeal" 1843-1894
6. Shelby Baptist Assn, TN 1903-1956
7. Shelby County Death Records (1848-1901)
Ellen Warr 5-10-1888 37 years
Mary Warr 11-19-1886 51 years both women and black
8. Memphis Death Records 1848-1901 (same as above different book)
9. Warren County, TN Marriages 1852-1865
10. Warren County, TN Deed Book A 1808-1818
11. Warren County, TN Will Books 1-3 vol. 1
12. Warren County, TN Will Books 4-7, vol. 2
13. Warren County, TN Will Books 8011, vol. 3
14-18 Rock of Ages Church pictures – Rock of Ages also had an anniversary book that gave some history on the church and its pastors.
Roll 21 - Affidavits Provst Marshall of Freedmen's, 1865
Roll 23 - " " ", 1865-1866
Roll 33 - General Reports of the late Riots in Memphis, May 1866
Roll 37 - Affidavits to Memphis Riots, May 1866
In September 2015, I was given the name of Smokey’s cousin, Lena Towner, who is also the family historian for the Warr Family. She was also in the midst of planning for the upcoming reunion. She had a wealth of knowledge on the family – pictures and stories. I could have stayed all day listening to her stories of Smokey and his family. One of the contacts we had was an elderly cousin named Bea from Detroit. She was in and out of the hospital, but I managed to talk to her a few times and it was amazing how sharp her memory was on the past. She said the family had Cherokee lines and most of the descendants came from “Old Man Warr”. (Note: I could never really figure out if she was referring to Adam Warr the African American, or James Warr, the white slave owner). Some of the stories were too confidential to put on the show, but she helped me put a lot of the Warr family into the proper families, she and Lena knew the bloodline of Warrs to Smokey and those who had the same last name taken from when they were slaves on the Warr plantation. Most of the free slaves stayed in the Fayette and Shelby County areas to this day.
One of the highlights of this research project was a road trip I took with Lena Towner to Rossville, TN. I picked her up in Mississippi and we drove over to historic Rossville. We did some grave searching and with the help of two awesome men we met at a local church, we found the cemetery where the white Warr family was buried. It was in the middle of an overgrown forested area. There was no way I could have found it alone. The headstones were covered in foliage and were not in the best of condition. Pieces of the remaining old Warr house could be seen. There was an old barbed wire fence that family stories say was where the African American Warrs were buried. There was no way to prove this, so I feel this is why the show did not showcase it. It was an overgrowned area back behind where the house stood. The house was said to belong to Dr. A.V.Warr. Lena and I met the current homeowner of the home Dr. Warr lived in during the Civil War. The home has been renovated, but a lot of the features and charm were kept. The homeowners were very nice and gave us a tour of the home. Across from the home was a plaque, “The Skirmish at LaFayette Station. There were two old building there that were the fire station and old jail during the civil war.
In November 2015, I took a road trip to Somerville, TN to visit the library and the court house. I went through some very old books looking at marriages and land deeds. I had dinner at the Main Street Eatery, which at the time was closing and it was their last day. Upon looking today, it appears they must have reopened, which is great as their food was amazing. Joe Burns, past TN Genealogical Society President had recommended this place to me.
In June 2016, some of the producers of the show came to the Memphis area to scout out the areas they might consider airing. I met them at the Tennessee Genealogical Society and we went over the research. As I researched the Warr family, I kept thinking something was familiar. A couple years before this project I had a client who had the white Warr family that I researched. I was also currently doing a project for them, but due to the privacy clause, I could not tell them I was researching their family and its ties to the Smokey Robinson case. We found out that they owned the land where the Warr land use to be. At that point, we could discuss the project and it was ironic that I had a client that had ties to the research I was doing for the show.
It is hard to believe that research over a two-year period could be fit into an hour show. A lot of stories were not told due to the time restraints, but I learned that Smokey Robinson has a great family, especially those from the Warr side. Their ancestors struggle brought forth descendants of a strong close knit family, that gather together for reunions and have a deep sense of family unity. I am honored to have been a small part of it with other researchers.
For a full biography on Smokey Robinson, visit his website - http://www.smokeyrobinson.com/bio/
By Tina Sansone, Professional Genealogist
Social Media for TN Genealogical Society