In January 2018, JMU history professor Rebecca Brannon was contacted by TLC to appear on the season finale of its 11th season of “Who Do You Think You Are?” On Dec. 17, on over 2 million viewers’ TV screens, Brannon helped uncover featured celebrity Matthew Morrison’s family history with her knowledge of the American Revolutionary War.
WDYTYA engages its audience in history by learning about the ancestry of celebrities such as Kelly Clarkson, John Stamos and J.K. Rowling. The producers of the show find historians from around the world to aid in the research of these ancestries to confirm the information is accurate.
Brannon was originally contacted by one of the show’s researchers and then had a Skype interview with some producers in February to get a sense of her demeanor on camera. In April, she was flown to Charleston, South Carolina, and filmed alongside Morrison at the Charleston Library Society.
“I certainly had jitters,” Brannon said. “It was a lot of fun, though. [Morrison] was a really nice, really interesting person. He embraced the experience of learning about his family.”
Both a professor and historian, Brannon has dedicated much of her time to the study of the loyalists of South Carolina in the American Revolution. She’s involved with the research department at Monticello and has written the award-winning book “From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists.” With this experience, she provided Morrison with information about his sixth great grandfather, who fought as a loyalist in South Carolina.
Her appearance on WDYTYA wasn’t Brannon’s first experience with a TV show. In 2016, she was filmed for Bill O’Reilly’s special history series “Legends and Lies: The Patriots.” This episode highlighted the efforts of South Carolina militia leader Francis Marion, and Brannon helped provide information about him.
“They were both really interesting experiences,” Brannon said. “But I would say that filming for the TLC show ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ was much more fun because I had a chance to help shape what we were going to say.”
Brannon’s family was enthusiastic and supportive throughout the process and several members either recorded the episode or watched it live. According to history professor Evan Friss, the history department was also excited to witness a colleague on television engaging with a public audience about history research.
“I was very impressed,” Friss said. “She did a great job of not only representing historians who have a lot to say even to the general public, but she did a great job representing James Madison University. I think we’re really lucky to have her.”
Brannon also serves on the university’s 2019 Commemoration Committee alongside executive adviser to the president Mike Davis, who handpicked her because of her expertise in early American history. Davis also supported her throughout her experience with WDYTYA.
“Faculty members have this reputation of being stuffy, and I think she did a great job of being very interactive with Matthew Morrison, but at the same time really highlighting her academic work and her academic abilities,” Davis said. “It was really cool.”
According to Davis, this opportunity doesn’t come often to JMU faculty. Though professors do sometimes appear on the news and in articles, the chance to be on a popular TV show is rare. Brannon is thankful for the opportunity to teach an audience outside the classroom.
“Of course I love teaching, but I can’t teach 2 million people at one time,” Brannon said. “I was incredibly excited to do the episode because it’s a chance to bring the history I love to a much wider audience.”
Contact Kamryn Koch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.