Researching the Family Tree

Dr. Stacey Robertson

By Nancy Ridgeway
July 20, 2013

Actress and singer Zooey Deschanel has taken a step into her family’s past, and Bradley’s Dr. Stacey Robertson is one of her tour guides.

Deschanel, star of the Fox sitcom “New Girl,” will be the featured celebrity on the August 13 episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” The series, which had aired on NBC and premieres on cable channel TLC on July 23, delves into the ancestry of celebrities.

Robertson explains how the show’s research team traced Deschanel’s ancestry to a 19th century woman. The discovery led producers to Robertson, who has researched the abolitionist movement for 25 years, focusing for the past 15 years on women’s roles in the movement.

“They wanted me to provide historical context about women in that time period based on my research and writing,” said Robertson, Bradley’s Oglesby Professor of American Heritage, director of Women’s Studies and interim dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  

Robertson was the second of four experts who met with Deschanel to talk about her ancestry. They traveled to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where a variety of mid-19th century documents related to Deschanel’s ancestors are stored. “These are beautiful, handwritten documents. We had to wear gloves to touch them. We could see the past in the documents—the oils from others’ hands, handwriting from another time period. The documents are alive with the past.

“Zooey was very moved and inspired by her ancestors. Viewers will find her reaction to be genuine and will be inspired themselves,” Robertson said.

Robertson was impressed with the research done for the show. “They really dig in. Everyone on the show was brilliant, and it all went smoothly. It was an honor to conduct research for this program, and I would love to do it again. With so many historians available, I feel fortunate to have been selected.”

 “I hope the episode will raise awareness about slavery today, particularly sex trafficking and labor trafficking, not only in other parts of the world but in Illinois and the Midwest. People don’t realize others are forced into labor in a dehumanizing way,” Robertson said, citing child labor and other instances.

“This is an opportunity to raise awareness about the largest catastrophe of our time. I made Zooey aware of Historians Against Slavery, an organization I co-direct. Our slogan is, ‘Using history to make slavery history.’”

Robertson has published three books: Hearts Beating for Liberty: Women Abolitionists in the Old Northwest, Antebellum Women: Private, Public, Partisan and Parker Pillsbury: Radical Abolitionist, Male Feminist. Her fourth book, Betsy Mix Cowles, Champion of Equality, is scheduled for publication this fall.