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[MS] Murella Powell on genealogy

Time well spent

Librarian and genealogist Murella Powell is living proof that studying history is



Murella Powell's passion and perseverance made local history accessible to everyone, and the collection she has compiled of documents, books and images remain as her legacy when she retires at the end of the day.

For more than three decades, Powell cajoled and convinced people that historical records, be it an old family letter, postcard or government archive, should be available to others. The result is housed in the Biloxi Public Library and is the local history and genealogy research center for the Harrison County Library System.

People from across the nation use the department, which handles 100 calls weekly, not to mention walk-ins. After today, someone else will be helping them.

"The thing I love about this work is the people," said Powell. "With their stories they take you on journeys of the past, and that is what this is all about."

Powell, as a child, actually listened to the stories of her elders and wondered who'd lived in old houses she passed.

"There was an Old World atmosphere in my Point Cadet neighborhood," she said. "There were different ethnic groups and each had their traditions.

"You've heard about how a village raises a child, well, my neighborhood raised me. There was a lot of extended family, my French family, but when I went to school I'd be with Yugoslavs and others of European background. The cultures mixed and mingled and the result was a unique childhood."

Her father was a shrimper and master carpenter, and her mother had moved to Biloxi as a teenager. Both had French-speaking, Louisiana roots.

"Even though my parents didn't have a lot of education they always read and respected books," said Powell. "My earliest memories are of two constants in my life: Going to the library on Saturday morning and church on Sunday morning."

As a youngster she'd meet librarian Florence Friedhoff at the bus stop and walk with her to the post office, where she'd get to carry the library mail.

"When I graduated, my mom asked, 'What do you want to do?' and I said, 'Work in the library,'

" recalled Powell. "My mom called Miss Friedhoff."

That was in 1957 when she was 17. In those days no separate departments existed, and the small staff did everything. The next year Powell married and put library life on hold as she raised three children, returning to the Biloxi Library in 1973 when Blondie Hartman was head librarian.

"Mrs. Hartman had the vision that local history and genealogy would be big," Powell said. "She told me, 'I want to start a real department and you're going to do it.' She used her own money for me to take home study, with college credit, through Brigham Young University."

Powell insists she could not have created the collection on her own. The support of the community, library directors, organizations, city officials and people like Julia Guice, who turned over materials collected as city historic preservation officer, made it possible.

Soon Powell found herself invited to give talks as a "local historian," and her role blossomed to include lectures and writing.

Murella Powell on genealogy:

"You can look at what your ancestors did, what they went through and accomplished, and you can draw strength from that. They are a part of you."

On history:

"You have to know what happened in the past because what we are now had its roots in the past. That's just the way it is."

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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