Fruit from the Family Tree
America’s founding fathers seemed to have settled all that British folderol about peerage, titles, bloodlines and pecking orders in 1776 with a the straightforward declaration that all men are created equal. Nonetheless, some descendants of early American leaders still revere their connections to their forebears. We know, because we in the Brenau family have a direct connection ourselves.
Many lofty titles come into play to describe Ann Ralls Freeman Murrah, WC ’54: dame, daughter, knight, regent, ambassador, president general. One finds her family names among signatures on the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. She appears in the original Marquis Who’s Who in America; among names of the descendants of Emperor Charlemagne; on the rolls of the Daughters of the American Revolution; in records and reports of the American Civil War; and in the Brenau University Alumni Hall of Fame.
However, Ann Murrah needs no calling card to confirm her identity.
“I got a call from a filmmaker in New York, wanting to visit me,” Murrah said in a long conversation at her home in Orlando, Florida. “I told them, ‘You are so sweet to want to do that, but I don’t need filming. I know who I am. I’m just a little girl from Alabama.”
In her 83 years, the self-professed “little girl” has affected the world and those around her in equal measure. After Brenau, she taught at Trinity and Westminster schools in Atlanta. Her varied careers since have included New York art broker, trophy-winning tennis player, Olympic-level equestrian in competitions in the United States and Europe (“I’ve had two broken backs from jumping horses”), riding instructor, and world-renowned scholar and lecturer on the U.S. Constitution. Her philanthropic efforts include fundraising for hospitals in Orlando, New York, and Washington, D.C., as well as the Metropolitan Opera. She has garnered numerous awards, and she has traveled to Russia and Taiwan, where in 1995 she was one of 11 keynote speakers at the Feminist Summit for World Peace.
“I don’t know how I did all those things, to tell you the truth,” she says in her distinctive, measured Southern tone. “I’ve had so many varied interests. I have had an insatiable appetite, a ferocity, just to know as much as I could know about everything. And, if there is anything I can do to help further somebody else, it is my pleasure [to do so].”
Pilgrims and Pulitzers
Murrah grew up in Gadsden, Alabama, and now resides in central Florida with her husband of 63 years, Robert Leland Murrah, a retired insurance executive. The family is well entrenched in their community, where both Ann and Robert are active in a variety of civic and philanthropic enterprises. Their daughter, Frances Ralls Murrah Lovett, lives nearby, as does their son, Dr. Robert Leland Murrah Jr., a prominent orthopedic surgeon.
The iron gates across the front door of the modest Murrah home bear two colorful crests representing the grafted roots of the combined family trees that include generals, governors, members of Congress and state legislatures, Pilgrims, a Pulitzer Prize winner, some iconoclastic political leaders and possibly a celebrated rogue or two.
Ann Murrah’s lineage includes the early American political leader/land speculator William Blount, who signed the U.S. Constitution as a North Carolinian. Before the American Revolution, he was a member of the Continental Congress. During the Revolutionary War, he was a militia regimental organizer, paymaster and field commander. He subsequently served as the only governor of “the Southwest Territories.” After that region became the state of Tennessee, Blount took one of the new state’s first two U.S. Senate seats.
Blount’s political career ended rather abruptly. You will find him in the history books as the first member expelled from the Senate – the result of his entanglement in specious land deals and Euro-American political intrigue. However, the genes he passed along provided the credentials required for Murrah’s admission to organizations like the Daughters of the Cincinnati, the Colonial Dames of America (the oldest lineage society in America, which boasts among its members Jacqueline Kennedy), and the aforementioned DAR.
Likewise, genes of William Williams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, from Connecticut, percolate through Murrah’s bloodstream.
Another relative was Andrew Jackson Hamilton, the Alabama-born lawyer who had a rather colorful run as the 11th governor of Texas. His appointment came not by plebiscite but by presidential appointment during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, thanks to his pre-war pro-union and anti-slavery sentiments. Hamilton later even broke with his presidential sponsor, Andrew Johnson, who in Hamilton’s view did not go far enough in supporting suffrage and civil rights for freed slaves after the war.
The Virginia newspaper editor and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Douglas Southall Freeman was Murrah’s father’s cousin. Freeman earned a strong reputation as a historian of both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, especially for his biographical works about George Washington and Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Murrah’s Alabama roots come from her great-grandfather, Dr. John Perkins Ralls, who probably knew General Lee personally. A Georgia native, Ralls moved to Alabama to study medicine and became a practicing medical doctor and an ordained minister in the Methodist-Episcopal Church South. However, Dr. Ralls also looms as a player in what is known in some parts as “The Lost Cause.” He represented Alabama in the first Congress of the Confederate States. In Richmond, Virginia, where the Confederate government located its capital in the early days of the Civil War, Ralls preached a Christmas sermon at the request of his close friend Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. When Alabama regained its U.S. statehood following the Civil War and Reconstruction, Ralls won a seat in the Alabama Legislature.
Murrah also claims a relationship with John Robinson Ralls. The Georgia-born entrepreneur and philanthropist acquired a ranch in the pathway of a proposed railroad line through West Texas and laid out a well-planned town named Ralls. The town included what he boasted shortly after the turn of the 20th century was the biggest opera house west of Fort Worth.
Such connections are extremely important to Murrah, as evidenced by the museumlike collection of memorabilia in her home. With piano recordings playing softly in the background, Murrah tells the story behind each of the countless mementos hanging on all walls and covering most surfaces.
“I’m a collector,” she says. “I collect people, things. . . . I have a lot of stuff.”
She guides us around the first floor, her genteel Southern charm sparkling with wit. Indicating an enormous cherry sideboard in the sitting room, she says, “It took four strapping men to pick this thing up.” In one bedroom, well-used riding boots line the foot of the bed and equestrian helmets top the dresser. Pastoral riding scenes cover the walls. The portrait in the room of her great-grandfather – John Perkins Ralls – she claims is more valuable for the painter, Virginia portraitist David Silvette, than for its distinguished subject.
A converted garage is filled with historical pieces that match the gorgeous pre-Civil War furniture in the house proper. That elicits stories of her connection to the iconic Southern saga Gone with the Wind, and the Murrahs’ friendship with Olivia de Havilland, the actor who portrayed the character Melanie Hamilton in the classic 1939 movie. Murrah asserts that the actual clan of Georgia Hamiltons from which she descended had been novelist Margaret Mitchell’s inspiration for the fictional Melanie’s family.
“I have done nothing but be a keeper of all these things,” she says, proclaiming that “someday” she will catalog these mementos of many lifetimes. Although she could be a veritable living billboard for genealogy websites like ancestor.com, Murrah is something of a self-described troglodyte: “I’m the only woman you know who doesn’t have a cell phone and doesn’t work on a computer. I do everything by hand.”
Her familial connections come up in almost any conversation and inform the very fabric of her life. Yet it is her matter-of-fact rendition of something that merely is part of who she is that almost downplays the reality: You can scratch at many significant events in the first century or so of America’s history and uncover a genealogical connection to Ann Murrah.
It would be hard to find someone who could elicit more interest in the subjects that inspire her. A public speaker since she was 29, Murrah has toured the world talking about the Constitution and the foundation of the American government. The Descendants of the Signers of the Constitution in 2000 elected her president general for life. In 1988, the Sons of the American Revolution gave her its Martha Washington Medal. She held a place on the founding committee to build the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia with former President Bill Clinton. The list of her memberships in historical societies, from the Plantagenet Society to the Knights of the Garter, fills several pages of a resume.
“I have a Thomas Jefferson Peace medal,” she says in the straightforward style of a museum docent. “Would you like to see it?”
Thomas Jefferson sent the explorers Lewis and Clark off on their two-year journey to discover America equipped with an ample supply of medallions to hand out, primarily to Native American chiefs they met along the way. Similar palm-size bronze medals have been minted for each U.S. president since, for them to give sparingly to distinguished honorees. Ann’s medal, which she received in 2009, sits casually, almost forgotten, in its case, under a footstool. “My son had never seen it until this year. He said ‘You’ve never said anything about it,’” she says with a wink. “’Well,’ I told him, ‘I didn’t know y’all were all that interested.’”
Her Brenau connections are important to her, too. Murrah, a member of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority, came to Brenau as a member of the Women’s College Class of 1954. She was inducted into the Alumni Hall of Fame in its second class, in 2001. Although she also attended Georgia State University and the Blackstone Law School in Chicago, where she and Bob lived during the Korean War, she says, “My lifelong affinity has been with Brenau and the Class of ’54.”
“The two influences in my life outside my family,” she says, “would be boarding camp in the summer when I was a young girl and my time at Brenau. My professors played a tremendous influence on my life. There were so many areas that you could involve yourself in, and be learned – and I use that word strongly – when you came out. Brenau was unique in that it had everything that anybody would want to influence their lives, if they would let their lives be influenced.”
Three members of her husband’s family are also Brenauvians. Bob’s mother, Frances Kolb Johnson Murrah, also a member of Alpha Delta Pi, graduated from Brenau in Gainesville, Georgia, in 1927. Originally from west central Georgia, Frances moved to Florida in the early 1940s with her two young sons, Bob and his brother, Kenneth, who also lived in Orlando until his death last year. She taught school there for 40 years.
Bob and Kenneth’s great-aunt, Mattie Beall Magruder, graduated from Brenau in the early 20th century. His second cousin, Elizabeth Magruder, graduated in 1933 from the Brenau Academy.
The connection netted Bob, then an Emory University student, an invitation to a dance at the ADPi house on the Brenau campus. He was in the company of a young woman who was then the sorority president, he recalls, but as he danced with her in the parlor, his eyes wandered up the staircase, where he espied “a true vision,” he said.
“Who is that?” he asked his date.
“That’s Ann Freeman,” she said, adding with a little turf-guarding jealously, “from Alabama.”
“But it was a lost cause,” Bob says. “I was hooked, and I’m still hooked.”
However, as it turned out, there were more genealogical connections than Brenau in the lives of Ann Freeman and Bob Murrah. Records of the American colonial era, its revolution and Civil War that contain references to Blounts, Rallses and Hamiltons on Ann’s side of the family also contain references to Bealls, Magruders and Murrahs on Bob’s side.
Bob’s mother, like his wife, was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. You will find the name of Bob’s great-aunt Mattie also listed in the official of records of that organization – she was a page at the DAR National Congress in 1913 – about the time she would have attended Brenau. Bob’s side of the family, like Ann’s, has an early Texas connection. Bob’s maternal grandmother, Florence Magruder, descended from the clan of John Bankhead Magruder, known for having served in the armies of three “nations” – the United States, the Confederate States and, after he fled the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War, Mexico. Bob’s family is also related to Pendleton Murrah, who served as the 10th governor of Texas, elected in the midst of the Civil War.
It is a somewhat amusing footnote that Pendleton Murrah, a staunch secessionist, took office the year after Ann Murrah’s ancestor – Texas State Senator Andrew Jackson Hamilton – who was rabidly against secession, had to flee to Mexico because of his pro-Union sympathies. Hamilton had given up a seat in Congress to enter the state legislature, believing erroneously that he could do more to stop his state’s secession in Austin than in Washington. When the Confederacy was on its last legs, it was Gov. Murrah’s turn to flee south of the border to avoid imprisonment or the hangman’s noose. After the war ended and Texas was back under control of the United States, U.S. President Andrew Johnson appointed as Pendleton’s successor none other than his old congressional colleague, the recently repatriated Andrew Jackson Hamilton.
By the time Ann Murrah accepted her nomination to the Brenau Alumni Hall of Fame, she had adopted as her lifetime motto a quote from Aristotle that she picked up during her Brenau studies: “Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
”I have always wanted within my own self to represent, and to be, the best,” she says. “That is what I believe my family was about.”
“It’s not about things,” the little girl from Alabama says as she surveys the appointments, mementos and story-laden antiques around her. “I have beautiful things, but that had nothing to do with [my interest in genealogical connections]. There is so much history in any family. It is about humanity.”
“You don’t have to have all of this. Just because you cannot say that Jefferson Davis slept in that bed over there …,” she says, nodding toward an ornate headboard under the portrait of her great-grandfather, the Confederate congressman-preacher.
However, before she could finish the thought, the docent kicked in:
”…which he did, of course.”
That kind of fact and connection clearly fuels Ann Ralls Freeman Murrah’s passion, and she will talk about those connections whenever the opportunity arises. It is who she is. She is a woman who cannot escape her past, because she does not want to.
Joseph Reed Hayes is a freelance writer in Orlando, Florida. Additional historical material and reporting by Brenau Window Editor David Morrison.