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Distinguished Dozen: Shelley Viola Murphy helps people discover their roots

Dr. Shelley Viola Murphy didn’t plan for her life’s most meaningful work to be in genealogy. But after helping more than 100 descendants of enslaved people find their family histories and learn the stories of their ancestors, Murphy found a special calling.

With a doctorate in management and organizational leadership, her professional life was focused on real estate and fair housing, not ancestry and reclamation.

But along her life’s way, stories that her mother had told her as a child about their own family began to resonate with her. As a Black woman who is a descendant of enslaved people, there were gaps in her personal history for which she wanted answers.

In the late 70s, her mother, now 92, wanted some help in piecing together some of the family’s history. Murphy was struck by some of the stories she heard about her free and enslaved ancestors.

“That’s what piqued my interest, and it was all over by then,” said Murphy. “I was hooked.”

Over the decades, Murphy eventually pieced together the pieces of her own puzzle and has since helped dozens of people learn their own histories, too.

Because of the paucity of records about the lives of enslaved people, the work can take months — and in her own family’s case, even years. But the exhilaration of learning about one’s ancestors — and in so doing, honoring them — makes it all worthwhile, she said.

For Murphy’s years of helping descendants learn their stories, Murphy was nominated and chosen as a Distinguished Dozen.

“America has not reconciled itself to its own history,” Murphy said of the way that the telling of U.S. history has left out Black people for centuries. “For me, as an African American, I have a problem with that. To me, it was intentionally left out.”

Murphy has intentionally worked for decades to put that history in. In almost all cases, the excavation of genealogical information about enslaved people involves researching European ancestors and enslaved ancestors, she said. Finding information on enslaved ancestors takes much more time than finding information about European ancestors.

“A lot of times it’s just a first name, say, Bob,” said Murphy. “It can take hours, and I love every minute of it. The thrill for me is being able to engage with the descendants. It’s a reuniting and connecting that is very meaningful.”

Her nominator, Phyllis Leffler, calls Murphy “a force of nature.” Murphy serves in many volunteer capacities, including serving on the boards of both the Fluvanna Historical Society and the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, having served as board chair and president of the latter. She is currently vice president of the group. A trained genealogist, Murphy is also a board member of the Library of Virginia.

On Friday nights, Murphy hosts an online meeting to help people looking for information about their ancestors.

She also is the Descendant Project Researcher for the University of Virginia to find descendants of enslaved laborers.

In that role, Murphy spends countless hours researching original documents, including such things as invoices, to identify the specific enslaved persons who were assigned to build or work at UVa.

Murphy understands the complexity of this research — and the excitement it can bring — in part because of her own experience. Having been born in Michigan, she was completely surprised when she found out that one of the biggest missing parts of her life was right here in Albemarle County. She is a descendant of Joseph Brand Jr., whose father was Joseph Brand Sr., an immigrant from Scotland and owner of a plantation named Findowrie.

Murphy had been focusing her research in Pennsylvania, she said, based on oral history reports she had heard. But then, she came across a lawsuit filed in Ohio by her great-great-grandparents. The lawsuit had to do with the will of Joseph Brand Jr., who wanted to leave his estate to an enslaved woman with whom he lived and fathered four children in Albemarle County. One of those four, Mildred, was Murphy’s great-great-grandmother.

“It’s the highlight of my research,” Murphy said.

And yet, there is nothing quite as fulfilling as helping others claim their families’ stories and to know their own, she said.

While the finding of one’s descendants is often emotional, it is also educational, Murphy said. She finds meaning in bringing to light the lives of people who literally built the homes and other dwellings of vast parts of the colonies, and later, the U.S.

Murphy sees descendant research as a way for future generations to know the truth about the contributions of African Americans.

“This country’s wealth was built on the work of African Americans,” she said.

For this reason, many of the descendants she has worked with at UVa feel great pride when they learn what their ancestors did to contribute to the build the university.

“Because of what UVa has done, these people are no longer forgotten, and their work is remembered,” Murphy said.


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