As Program Associate, Community Initiatives at Virginia Humanities, Ressie Luck-Brimmer is responsible for regional engagement in southern Virginia and helps support the General Assembly African American Cultural Resources Task Force. In collaboration with the local community, she sustains a network of cultural organizations that are “committed to positive change.”
Though based primarily in the Dan River/Danville region of Virginia, Ressie’s passion and expertise as a public historian and genealogist have broadened the impact of her work across the state and nation. She played a key role in unveiling a family legacy and deepening connection between a former Virginia plantation (Sharswood) and Fred Miller, its new owner whose ancestors were once enslaved there. Earlier this year, the story was featured in The Washington Post and on “60 Minutes,” where Ressie appeared to discuss her research, including the challenges to looking for the ancestors of African Americans who were not included by name in the United States census until 1870.
Ressie is the founding president of the Danville/Pittsylvania County Chapter of the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society (AAHGS) and a governor-appointed member of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources. We recently spoke with her to learn more about her background in the public humanities and beyond.
- What led you to the humanities?
A former sociology professor, Ruth Butler, introduced me to the study of the humanities. I can remember sitting in her class as a freshman at eighteen years old thinking, this pretty much sums up the family history work I’ve been doing. The humanities found me. I had been working in my community as a historian and genealogist independently when I was asked to be on the advisory council on a project called History United, an affiliate of Virginia Humanities (VH). I fell in love with Virginia Humanities and the amazing work they were doing all across the state. Here I am, five years later, still connected to this wonderful organization, doing the work I’m most passionate about.
- Please tell us about your interest and work in the field of genealogy.
They say that there is one in every family and I guess that someone was me. My grandfather was the community historian and he was also my favorite person growing up. He was quite the storyteller and would keep me captivated for hours watching his animations as he would talk about his family history. He told me how his great grandfather, Gardner Luck, was a slave and he always wanted to know where he came from. That led to my fascination with Gardner and becoming obsessed with finding out his origins. My grandfather told me that I should start collecting stories from the elders in the neighborhood because they could provide insight into the past that I was looking for. I was around seventeen at the time. I had no idea how this would help aid in my research but the oral histories were without a doubt the most powerful tools I would come to use (thus far).
- How does your background as a genealogist and public historian inform your work as a Community Initiatives Associate at Virginia Humanities?
They are both synonymous with each other. In the work of genealogy, it’s more than adding names to a family tree, it is the documentation of every single fabric of a person’s life. Exciting lesser-known history is often uncovered and you are able to build a story upon that. Our total mission at Virginia Humanities, if I had to sum up in one sentence, is: “We help all Virginians tell their stories.” The work overlaps quite a bit and genealogy is integrated into my storytelling.
- How would you describe the link between genealogy and the humanities? How can genealogy help inform or improve the humanities overall?
Genealogy is usually not included in the field of the humanities and we don’t think about our family history on a broader scale. However, our family histories are what define us. Our shared family trees are the origins to all humanity. For the past ten years or more, Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) analysis has been at the forefront of genealogy research, providing additional clues once the paper trail has run out. Once the kinks are worked out as more and more people test daily, we will one day be able to produce a worldwide map that includes more accuracy on where human genetics descend from. DNA analysis will also enhance medical research and all of these things are beneficial to the humanities because we get to see how everyone in the world’s genetic sequence is related to each other.
- How does your work as a genealogist help support Black families and communities in Virginia?
Genealogists oftentimes get thrown into the world of historic preservation, tourism, and economic development. The way that I help support Black and brown communities is by providing education and resources around the issues that have historically plagued our communities. Historically Black neighborhoods are looked at as the slums and less desirable but once we begin to educate economic development on the history, the cause and effects, the “whys?,” it all becomes evident that these communities look that way because they have been neglected, all by design. Oftentimes, these communities are not privy to the information and resources that are available with helping to restore and preserve their communities. Black communities and anything associated with Black culture is left out and completely ignored by the preservation movement. Spaces that are historical treasures in the Black community are last to get resources and the decision makers who decide if it stays or goes usually have no connection to the community.
Genealogy is tracing your ancestors through every historical moment known to man, so it’s not just who you are related to but it’s about the way your ancestors lived, worked, worshiped, and how through their resilience and tenacity, you are here today. The research reveals clues and facts about their successes and failures and you are able to connect them to key points in history. You learn of their occupations and who the carpenters and architects were, all of this is essential for historic preservation.
There are some people still living in the homes designed by Black architects in the mid-to-late 1800’s, in Black communities that are worth preserving. Genealogy provides all the tools needed to qualify these spaces for the National Register of Historic Places. These spaces then provide opportunities for tourism and we know that historic preservation goes hand-in-hand with economic development. I am grateful for the relationship between our State organizations like Virginia Humanities, the Department of Historic Resources, and Preservation Virginia, all working together to help preserve these historic places that are essential to framing a more inclusive story for our country. When people know their familial and cultural roots, it helps to develop a sense of pride, connection, and their core identity.
- When you’re not working, how do you enjoy spending your time?
I love to travel and explore small towns and museums. I’m always looking for a historic tour. I give cultural heritage tours in the city, so I love to see how others interpret the history. I enjoy crafting and feel as though I was born to live on the beach. Most of my days are filled with music.
- What is one thing you’re looking forward to or feeling hopeful about right now?
Our thoughts are so powerful and my mom always told me that, “your future is in your mouth.” That has stuck with me, so I always try to guard my thoughts. It’s often hard to do especially during these tumultuous times in our country as well as across the world. But there is always something to be thankful and hopeful for. Although in the early phase, I am looking forward to the many projects I’m involved in coming to fruition. I am also feeling hopeful about the visibility of the work genealogists are doing worldwide. The nature of this work is changing the trajectory of people’s lives. I am just happy to play a small part.
- What is your favorite quote?
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” –Marcus Tullius Cicero