Zooey Deschanel Connects to the Underground Railroad on 'Who Do You Think You Are?'
Imagine finding out that one of your female ancestors risked her life to help secure freedom for slaves.
Last night on TLC's "Who Do You Think You Are?," Zooey Deschanel was impressed and invigorated as she learned the details of her ancestor Sarah (Henderson) Pownall's life as an abolitionist — and it's no wonder. Pownall was a trailblazer whose actions and beliefs are extremely well-documented, which is a blessing. All families don't have an ancestor whose life experience is so well-documented as well as admirable. Sarah's story would be fascinating even if she wasn't related to Fox's "New Girl," and Zooey proves to be an excellent, curious, and articulate leader on this journey.
This episode is flush with the necessary ingredients for a fruitful ancestral quest: extensive documents, detailed recordings of major events, minutes from meetings, and articulate essays. We start out with Zooey and her parents in California, talking about their Quaker heritage on her father's side. Quakers are anti-slavery and liberal, and deeply concerned with human rights. We see pictures and we learn about her grandmother, now deceased, with whom Zooey felt a strong connection. Her grandmother was arrested for protesting a power plant at the age of 80. Zooey, a feminist in her own right, can relate to her grandmother's passion.
The next stop is Pennsylvania, where Zooey visits with well-informed historians and wears protective gloves to examine old documents. At the Swarthmore College Library, Zooey learns about her ancestor Sarah, a vanguard abolitionist who fought for emancipation before it was socially acceptable. Documents confirm that Sarah was a member of a Quaker committee to fight slavery. The historian says this was a very bold and risky move in 1848, because at that time abolitionists were condemned as zealots by the majority. Zooey gets emotional while observing that it's "incredible and horrible" to think of a time when slavery was commonplace and accepted by the masses. And she is pleased to see her ancestor Sarah's signature on the Quaker document, which confirms that she was, without a doubt, an abolitionist. "I feel honored to be related to one of these people," she says. "Yesterday, all I had was a family tree. Now I have an identity."