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Lionel Richie discovered his great grandfather in city directories

Lionel RichieIn a recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Lionel Richie found listings for his great grandfather, a man his family never talked about, in the Nashville city directories for 1880 and 1885. The occupation and address information provided for John L. Brown led Lionel to learn of his ancestor’s importance in the African American community through an organization known as the Knights of Wise Men.

Before we had phonebooks, we had city directories. They provide us with annual historical snapshots of a city’s residents, and give details of occupations, addresses, and relationships. Footnote has thousands of pages from hundreds of city directories from New York to California, from Louisiana to Wisconsin, and ranging in date from 1786 to 1926.

James RobinsonOn one representative page in the 1861 Detroit City Directory we find coopers, photographers, teachers, printers, fur finishers, firemen, draymen, and washerwomen, among others. There are men and women; married, single, and widowed; and some are identified by race. We also find a unique story about a black man named James Robinson who “says he is 109 years old” and fought in the Revolutionary War.

Begin your city directory searches on the city directories title page where you’ll find links to search or browse within thirty major metropolitan centers in twenty states. You can also learn more by checking out the city directories description page.

Follow your ancestors, year by year, and build a history of where they lived and what they did for a living by exploring city directories at

One Comment

  1. I found out things that were kept from me that my great grandma was black and a slave my family were.. I am white but a little dark either way i love all people and have always been close to people of color.. On my fathers side we were Indians what a combined combination.. Well just to let you know personally, I found it Awsome and beautiful no matter what. By the way, I have always loved your music. Peace be with you an many more God Bless you an the spirit with in us all.