Merlene Davis: Local historian helps NFL's Bettis find ancestors on NBC series

UK historian Gerald Smith, right, filmed a segment of Who Do You Think You Are? with Jerome "The Bus" Bettis. Smith put genealogical data into historical context.
UK historian Gerald Smith, right, filmed a segment of Who Do You Think You Are? with Jerome "The Bus" Bettis. Smith put genealogical data into historical context.

If NBC had tapped me to appear as an expert on the series Who Do You Think You Are?, people at church, in the grocery store, at work or even at stoplights would know about it.

But that's me. That's not Gerald Smith, Baptist minister, author, historian and University of Kentucky professor.

"I'm a low-key guy," Smith said while driving to Frankfort yesterday for a meeting of the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission. "I don't have time to stick my chest out."

Well, let me do it for him.

Smith will appear on the TV series Friday, giving retired Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome "The Bus" Bettis information about Bettis' ancestors who once walked, worked and lived as slaves on farmland in McCracken County.

"It was a lot of fun," Smith said. "Initially, the producers wanted me to come down (to Paducah) twice, but I told them I didn't have time."

No time for a national TV show?

The show's producers first contacted Smith in October, asking him to meet with them in Frankfort along with Western Kentucky University history professor John Hardin. Smith, Hardin and Kentucky State University professor emeritus Karen C. McDaniel are general co-editors of the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia Project.

Producers then called Smith and asked him to come down to Paducah to be filmed with Bettis.

You know what I would have said. By now, you should also know what Smith said.

"I told them I really didn't have the time," he said. "I didn't want to drive to Paducah. They said they would fly me down. Then they said they would send a driver. I finally gave in and said I would rather drive myself."

In his defense, Smith was in the middle of classes at UK and he was vying for a position as pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Lexington. He had served as pastor of a church in Berea for eight years and was looking forward to a much shorter commute.

He was also serving as guest editor of a special black history issue of The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, scheduled to be published in April. And he is working on an anthology.

The TV series is about celebrities who are willing to trace their ancestry as information is unveiled to them and a camera crew. Smith said their reactions are genuine. No information is given to the celebrity prior to the filming, he said.

In fact, the producers are so secretive, Smith didn't find out who he was paired with for several more weeks, well after he had been given research conducted by the show's investigators. Smith's job was to interpret the documents the show's staff had found and put them in historic context.

"They had really done a good job," he said. "I had done some additional work myself, but they had done the heavy lifting. I was to be the researcher and history teacher on camera."

Smith's segment, which he said lasts maybe two minutes, was scheduled to be filmed in December. Because of contract restrictions he wasn't permitted to tell his family who the celebrity was. But he couldn't resist telling his daughters the celebrity was Beyonce.

"They were going to tweet that and I had to stop them," Smith said, laughing.

The day before the shoot, Smith drove to Paducah and met the director, who explained how the segment would flow. The next day, minutes before meeting Bettis, the crew alerted everyone that Bettis was driving up or was in the building.

"I have been on TV and in documentaries before," Smith said, "but this was first rate. I was impressed with the planning, the organization and the professionalism of the staff."

Although Smith has not seen the show, he said the story unfolds with "collective memories" given to Bettis by his mother. Stories that are passed down from parents and grandparents can be inconsistent and incorrect, however, which is why Bettis wanted to learn more, Smith said.

Smith meets Bettis in the McCracken County Courthouse and talks about a relative who lived at the turn of the 20th Century. Bettis' reaction is genuine, he said.

"He is a super, super guy," Smith said. "We clicked so well. He signed something for me and gave me his cell number to keep in touch. It was like we had known each other for a long time."

Now that it is all over, Smith is very glad he had agreed to do the show.

"This kind of show is indicative of just how much African American history is a central part of the American fabric," Smith said. "It demonstrates how ordinary Kentucky African Americans were instrumental in shaping the values and identities of African Americans whose family members moved out of the state and on to do extraordinary things in life. Their untold stories are part of the Kentucky story as well as the American story."

He said people in Kentucky and elsewhere will be able to see the value of researching and documenting black history, lending legitimacy to the painstaking work conducted at the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia Project.

And speaking of that, Smith could use your help.

"We are more than half way through, but we are in a dire situation," Smith said. "We are in desperate need of financial support. I am sad to say that the project is close to coming to an end without completion."

Without donations, there will not be enough money to hire graduate students to conduct research or for copy editing and publication scheduled for late 2014.

To help, send tax-deductible donations to Kentucky African American Encyclopedia Project, c/o The Thomas Clark Foundation, The University Press of Kentucky, 663 South Limestone, Lexington, Ky., 40508-4008.