Judy G. Russell:
When: Starting at 9 a.m. on February 26
Where: Fayetteville Public Library via Zoom
Information: Register on faylib.org
FYI: Follow Russell and ask him questions at www.legalgenealogist.com.
America has become a nation obsessed with genealogy. The mere existence of so many digitized, indexed, searchable genealogical records online, and our shared desire to find them, stems from a suite of personal and cultural motivations, as well as a complex history around lineage research.
— Excerpt from “The Lost Family” by Libby Copeland
“We watch because human beings are born storytellers, and we want to know how our ‘once upon a time’ fits into the stories of our lives. We watch because genealogy has a way of making history abstract real, and we want to know if the past guides us – unfortunate inhabitants of a chaotic present whose future we cannot yet see.
— Libby Copeland writes in Psychology Today
National Family History Month is October, but February’s designation as Black History Month was one of the reasons the Fayetteville Public Library decided to host a series of genealogy workshops. . The first, on February 12, looked at “Black American genealogy” and offered ways FPL can help in the search for an African American. The second offering, four seminars from Judy G. Russell, the “legal genealogist,” will take place Feb. 26 online.
Amy Nelson Lamont, FPL Genealogy Librarian, says she enjoys helping someone have a “Eureka moment.”
“People who research their family history honor their ancestors, but also gain a better understanding of themselves,” she says, and these researchers come from “all walks of life.” A typical day includes questions ranging from “How do I use Ancestry.com?” to “Who originally owned the property where I now live?” to “I have a tombstone in my yard that says… Can you tell me something about this?”, which she calls the craziest question in over a decade with FPL.
Lamont says the library “has been diligently trying to expand our collection to serve as a one-stop facility. People who come here usually have massive research needs for very limited amounts of time.
“We have worked hard to obtain the most elusive materials of ethnic heirlooms. I admit there are quite a few who are trying to trace their native heritage,” she continues. “We have people who come from other cities, states and countries to research the Grace Keith genealogy collection. Often the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah [Okla.] send people here because we have more resources than them. It makes me so proud!”
Lamont adds that the genealogy library recently added four new sections: Black Americans, American Slaves, Freedmen, and Black Native Americans.
“[It’s] still very difficult but not always impossible” for African-American and Native American descendants to learn more about their ancestors, she says. is available now compared to old bulletin boards and written letters to historical societies. Nevertheless, she adds, these traditional methods should not be ignored.
Among Russell’s Feb. 26 sessions is “Deemed a Runaway,” his talk about how northern black laws help bring good research materials to those who have so little, Lamont says. “We thought it would be a good time to showcase our collection and draw attention to such an incredible opportunity!”
Russell, a Colorado native with deep roots in the southern United States on his mother’s side and entirely in Germany on his father’s side, says his interest in genealogy was born “around summer campfires in my grandparents’ farm in Virginia, listening to the stories told as only the Scots-Irish can tell: with absolute and utter reluctance never to let the truth stand in the way of a good story.”
“I eventually became interested in seeing if there was any truth to the stories,” she says, “and that was all it took. I’ve been addicted to family history ever since. And yes, there was some truth in some of the stories – but not at all in others!
“I can’t say I was surprised to find that there wasn’t much truth to these campfire stories, but I was surprised to find that my mother’s family was in America. since before there was an America – some branches come to southern Maryland and northern Virginia in the 1600s,” Russell explains. “Looking at my mother’s entries in my sister’s baby book, I expected to find that there were immigrants after the Civil War. But all of his ancestors were here very early, and I have ancestors who were in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
“I was also shocked to discover that my German-born father had relatives living in the United States – quite a few people I had never heard of. And then, of course, there’s that second back -grandfather who was indicted by the Republic of Texas… for bigamy!”
Russell holds a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University in Washington, DC, and a law degree from Rutgers School of Law-Newark. Before retiring, she worked as a journalist, trade association editor, legal investigator, defense attorney, federal prosecutor, editor and, for more than 20 years, as an adjunct faculty member at the Rutgers Law School. Now she “writes, teaches, and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical topics, providing expert advice through the murky territory where law and family history intersect.” His subjects at FPL will be:
• No vital signs? No problem! — Building a Family Through Circumstantial Evidence, 9 a.m. Feb. 26.
“One of our big challenges in family history is tracking down women who married before the 1850 census — the first census where they were listed by name,” Russell says. “It is even more difficult when there are no birth, marriage or death records for our research subject. Here is an overview of such a case: tracing a woman who died in Texas in 1908 until ‘to her family in Mississippi, where there are no extant documents vital to her at all.’
• After the Courthouse Fire: Bringing Family History to Life Through DNA, 10:30 am February 26.
“Especially for researchers in the southern United States, research is often fraught with catastrophic loss of records,” she says. “When a disaster deletes birth, marriage, death, court, land and probate records all at once, it may still be possible to light our family’s search fires – to rekindle our interest in our ancestral roots – using DNA evidence.”
• Deemed a Runaway — Black Laws of the North, 1 p.m. Feb. 26.
“The force of slavery was felt far north of the Mason-Dixon line, and black laws in northern states created valuable records for tracing African American families,” she says. “Here we will examine those Northern laws and records that can be especially rewarding for the descendants of slaves and slaveholders.”
• And Where There Is — or Isn’t — a Will, 2:30 p.m. Feb. 26.
“Probate records are juicy sources of details about our ancestors, and understanding the probate process and how to find the records can help us break down the brick walls in our search,” she says.
When asked about the biggest secret to successful genealogical research, Russell has a simple one-word answer: “Persistence.”
“Seriously. It’s easy to get frustrated and give up. But persistence – coming back to a question again and again from a different perspective or when new or different recordings become available – will often give us the answer we we need.”