By Ronald Hanaki
ESU history professor Dr. Michael Gray was featured on last Sunday night’s episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” on cable television’s TLC (formerly The Learning Channel).
The television show helps celebrities trace their ancestry.
Gray worked with television and movie actress Jessica Biel to help her discover the truth about her family’s genealogy.
Biel knew of a family legend about her great-great-great grandfather on her mother’s side.
According to the story, he was a southerner who had spent time in a northern Civil War prison.
The rumor was that he had suffered a tragic death, but Biel wanted to learn the truth.
Gray has published a book entitled “The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison” and is a nationally-recognized expert on northern Civil War prisons.
He has also been featured on CNN.
The combination of his Civil War prison expertise and his on-camera experience was what led TLC to enlist Gray’s help last summer.
Gray did his research by spending two to three weeks combing through Civil War prison archives.
He did his research at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. and the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Ultimately, Biel’s journey to uncover the truth took her to a Civil War military prison in Alton, Ill. where she met Gray.
“It was a fluid script. We did four takes. Then I met Jessica,” said Gray.
When the two first met, Biel said, “You’re not the typical history professor!”
In the episode, Gray discovers the truth about how Biel’s great-great-great grandfather died and tells the actress what really happened.
Gray said that Biel was relieved to learn the truth.
Then Gray went to lunch with her.
“It was awesome. She was very down-to-earth, not snobby,” said Gray.
“Her husband [Justin Timberlake] is a big golfer. We talked about our kids. I showed her a video of my son Josh golfing,” said Gray.
Overall, Gray enjoyed the experience.
“I had a travel person fly me out, and I was wined and dined for the first time in my life,” said Gray.
Gray is also enjoying his newfound celebrity status.
“WBRE was just in here,” said Gray when the local news station visited his classroom.
The “Who Do You Think You Are?” episode featuring Gray and Biel will re-air on TLC and can be streamed from TLC’s website.
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