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Dora Marrisette Leads the Search for Birmingham’s Oldest African American Genealogy Group

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Dora Marrisette, President of The Birmingham African American Genealogy Group Inc. leads classes at the Birmingham Public Library on the third Saturday of each month. (Barnett Wright, The Birmingham Times)

By Sym Posey | The Birmingham Times

The third Saturday of every month is special for Dora Marrisette, President of The Birmingham African American Genealogy Group Inc. (BAAGG) and members of the organization.

“We are a group of people [who] are curious about our roots, where we came from, and our people,” said Marrisette. “We are trying to extend that out into the community, where we help other people who are interested in the same thing. We try to point them to the right direction like the library, the archives in Montgomery, [and] the different archives at the Historically Black colleges.”

BAAGG holds classes at the Birmingham Public Library, 2100 Park Place, Linn-Henley Building, 4th Floor, Computer Room 3 – 5 p.m. on the third Saturdays of each month and was founded in 1999 and the oldest such organization in Alabama.

Marrisette, who has been a part of the group since 2000, has been able to “research her paternal side of my family back to 1870,” she said. “I thought that was a big accomplishment. I was able to locate the slave owner and identify my family in the slave owners’ will when his property was distributed,” said Marrisette.

At the time of BAAGG’s founding a growing number of African Americans expressed a desire to research their family’s “roots” in the Birmingham, Jefferson County, Alabama areas. The first meeting was held in February 1999 at the downtown Birmingham Public Library and this month the group celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Originally from Prichard, Alabama, in Mobile County, Marrisette attended Mattie T. Blount High School and recalled an interest in her roots even back then.

“When I went to high school we went to homeroom based on our last names and there were several people in my class that had the same last name but with different spellings,” she said. “I never really knew if we were related … and that started my quest to find out.”

Marrisette said the family would move to Birmingham and her father had a stroke losing his communication skills. “He couldn’t speak so I really couldn’t have the conversation with him that I wanted about his family.  My father passed last year … and I don’t have anybody to confirm anything that I find from his side of the family now.”

Marrisette attended Alabama State University where she studied biology.  “I wanted to teach science, but I think I sort of lost my patience my second day of observations in the classroom,” she said. “… After graduation I got a job here in Birmingham.”

For 43 years she worked for Southern Research – a nonprofit scientific research organization founded in Birmingham in 1941 and retired in December.

Asked what she’s doing in her free time, Marrisette said, “I have time to travel. I want to visit some of the places where my ancestors lived.”

Last year she started with her grandmother.

“She moved to Gary, Indiana, and that is where she lived for a few years. She died there and she is buried there. We went to the cemetery and to her neighborhood. Her home was not there but it did give us a sense of belonging and fulfillment. I just like to go to other places where they have planted roots. Sometimes I just want to get in my car and just drive or ride with no destination in place to just see what I can see,” said Marrisette, who often finds herself imagining what life could’ve been like for her ancestors.

“The group of slaves that my family were a part of came from Tennessee. They say those slaves walked from that state to this one. Sometimes, when I’m driving, I just imagine [them] maybe as [a] runaway slave. Sometimes I imagine their life and what it could’ve been like,” she said.

Since researching her genealogy, she has found ways to honor her ancestors.

“We have a saying in our group, ‘speak their names’, that way we remember them is we speak their names so that is what I try to do. In my research, I have recorded birthdays and weddings. I get reminders so that I can say ‘happy birthday’ or ‘congratulations’ [to her ancestors’, she said.

Interested in researching your family’s history? Join BAAGG In-Person & on ZOOM. Classes are on 3rd Saturdays of each month at the Birmingham Public Library, 2100 Park Place, Linn-Henley Building, 4th Floor, Computer Room 3 – 5 p.m.