The Austin Peay Mystery...

   Last week, I traveled to Clarksville, Tennessee for the Society of Tennessee Archivists annual conference. During the three-day meeting, I had an opportunity to visit the Montgomery County Archives.

Established in 1995, the Montgomery County Archives serves as the official repository for the historic, permanent records of Montgomery County Government and manuscript special collections. The Montgomery County Archives is a marvelous facility with wonderful professionals on staff eager to assist researchers and the public at large. County residents should feel proud of their efforts to preserve their history.

As with most archival facilities, most research queries received by the Montgomery County Archives fall into two broad categories -- requests for government records and family history research. The latter category is perhaps the most frequently researched subject.

Genealogy is wildly popular right now, and a recent flood of television programming has tapped into this trend. The television show Who Do You Think You Are?, for example, has featured stories from my home state of Tennessee, and now PBS has entered the genre with a new program called Genealogy Roadshow, a spinoff of its popular Antiques Roadshow program.

In its premiere episode, the Genealogy Roadshow highlighted a story which led one researcher to the Montgomery County Archives, where a previously uncataloged document played a crucial role in the narrative. The document in question was a letter revealed to be from a member of the family of Albert Roberts, an African-American entrepreneur who had a mysterious connection to Austin Peay, the former Governor of Tennessee.

Austin Peay was the 35th governor
of the State of Tennessee.
Image credit: Library of Congress
Peay, for whom Clarksville's Austin Peay State University was named, earned election as governor of Tennessee in 1922 and served in his third term when he died in office in 1927. Roberts, an African-American business owner, inherited a funeral home business from his grandfather, and also owned a taxi business, nightclub, and cemetery.

As the story unfolded on Genealogy Roadshow, Roberts engaged in a number of illegal activities, including rum-running and prostitution during the Prohibition era. Apparently, Governor Peay enlisted the aid of his protégé and law partner, Collier Goodlett, a well-known white attorney, who defended Roberts in court whenever the enterprising businessman got into legal trouble.

During the segment, professional genealogist and Genealogy Roadshow co-host Joshua Taylor asserted that the reason Austin Peay took such a keen interest in the legal affairs of this African-American businessman was that he was actually Albert Roberts' father. He theorized that as a fourteen-year-old boy, Peay fathered this child with a 28-year-old housekeeper, and in the years that followed, as governor, Peay intervened on Albert's behalf whenever he would run afoul of the law. 

It is a serious allegation, but one that Taylor claimed was true because a letter found in the Montgomery County Archives confirmed the story. "This is THE document," Taylor exclaimed. "If I could pick a document to frame on my wall and look at it would be this." The letter read in part:

"I didn’t know until recently that Albert Roberts was former Gov. Austin Peay’s son. It must have been a bombshell when it exploded."

The next day, the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle ran a story about the episode and revealed that a member of the Roberts' family living in French Lick, Indiana wrote and signed the letter in 1938.

Following the airing of this episode of Genealogy Roadshow, I eagerly anticipated viewing the letter for myself, so my visit to Clarksville and the Montgomery County Archives during STA2013 could not have come at a better time.

Page 2 of the letter in question, digitized and on public display at the Montgomery County Archives in Clarksville.
Author photo.

To her credit, the professional genealogist and researcher who uncovered the letter in an uncataloged box at the archives has stated publicly that "It’s an interesting document. Does it hit the nail on the head? No. As a genealogist, I want to see those official documents, and a handwritten letter is not an official document." I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment. Although this letter represents a key piece of evidence in the genealogical investigation, the document only confirms that the rumor of Governor Peay's relationship with Roberts was circulating at the time the letter was written. It is certainly not "THE" document proving that Austin Peay was Albert Roberts father.

It is my sincere hope that more official documents and information will be revealed to help solve this family mystery with absolute certainty. I also hope that in its second season the Genealogy Roadshow will continue to highlight stories like this which bring much-needed attention to the value and service that county archives provide to the public. In the meantime, I am grateful that that this letter is now properly cataloged and in good hands at the Montgomery County Archives for all the world to see.


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.