“The dream and the hope”

History was made on Thursday, 7 April 2022, when the Senate confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the 116th associate justice of the Supreme Court. She will be the first Black woman and the first public defender to serve on the court. Several months later, on Thursday, 30 June 2022, Judge Jackson took the oath as the newest associate justice on the Supreme Court.[1]

In response to this historic event, I wanted to look at Justice Jackson’s ancestry to learn more about her family origins. With the help of vital records, census records, calling a lot of town clerks in different counties, and encouraging teamwork, I was able to extend her ancestry back several generations.

Ketanji Onyika Brown was born 14 September 1970 in Washington, District of Columbia, to Johnny Brown and Ella Ree Ross. The couple had an additional child named Ketajh Brown, born about 1980. When the children were young, the family moved to Mrs. Brown’s native Miami, in Dade County, Florida. After graduating from Harvard University, Ketanji married Dr. Patrick Gardner Jackson on 12 October 1996. The couple has two daughters, Talia and Leila.

In her Supreme Court nomination hearing, Ketanji spoke about the pair’s family history: “[Patrick] and his twin brother are, in fact, the sixth generation in their family to graduate from Harvard College. By contrast, I am only the second generation in my family to go to any college, and I am fairly certain that if you traced my family lineage back past my grandparents — who were raised in Georgia, by the way — you would find that my ancestors were slaves on both sides.” And she’s right! Talia and Leila’s ancestry traces back to pre-1860s Georgia and 1600s Massachusetts, and that fact has become my main interest in researching the family’s ancestry.

So, starting with what we know: Ketanji’s parents are Johnny Brown and Ellery Ross.   Johnny was born in October 1945 in Fitzgerald, Ben Hill County, Georgia,[2] to Thomas Logan Brown and Queen Anderson. Thankfully, at the time of our research, the 1950 U.S. Federal Census had been released to the public. We looked tirelessly for both the Brown and Ross families – with some success. The Brown family remained in Fitzgerald until at least 17 August 1968, when Johnny married Ella Ree Ross in Miami.[3] Ella Ree Ross (also seen as Ellery) was born in September 1945 in Dade County[4] to Horace Ross Sr. and Euzera Green.[5] Horace and Euzera had two additional children: Carolyn (born in 1948) and Calvin (born in 1949).[6]

Although there are a lot of media postings about Ketanji’s family – particularly her connection to former Congressman Paul Ryan (through her husband’s family)[7] – there was initially no further information known before her parents’ generation. However, we were able to expand her ancestry additional generations, even to pre-emancipation Georgia.

[We] were able to expand her ancestry additional generations, even to pre-emancipation Georgia.

My full research will be released in the next issue of American Ancestors magazine, but in this blog post, I wanted to relay my knowledge on one of Ketanji’s family lines: the Rutherford family.

Ketanji Brown’s paternal great-grandmother, Ellen Releford/Rutherford, was born 10 May 1893 in Houston County, Georgia, to Crockett Rutherford and Caroline Lane.[8]  She married James Anderson in Houston County on 9 February 1911.[9] The couple had several children together, one being Ketanji’s grandmother, Queen (born in 1919). James and Ellen appear on several census records up until 1930, when Ellen is listed alone – by her maiden name “Releford” – along with all her children. James is nowhere to be found.

On further investigation, we located a 1923 divorce notice in The Home Journal,[10] a Houston County newspaper, for James and Ellen Anderson. When reading this specific divorce record, claiming adultery, it does not give us any confirming information on whether it’s our James and Ellen – however, it does line up with our census records of the Anderson and Releford/Rutherford families. And then, on 2 October 1939, we find that Ellen Rutherford marries Jesse Ferguson in Ben Hill County.[11] The couple does not appear on any other records together, but the surname “Ferguson” matches Ellen’s death record and her Social Security claim application.

In 1910 and 1920, the Rutherford family is living in Militia District 542 of Houston County, and after viewing the census page-by-page for other possible family connections, we quickly noticed a lot of other Rutherford families living nearby: specifically, an Armstead and Lucy Rutherford.

Having had as many as ten children, Caroline Rutherford (Crockett’s wife) appears as widowed on the 1940 census, and we find that Crockett Rutherford died 13 September 1937 at Hawkinsville, Houston County.[12] The couple’s son, Mitchell, is listed as the informant on the death certificate – but it does not provide a lot of useful information for expanding to the next generation.

Since we were quickly approaching a time in history where African Americans were not recorded by name, we continued delving into census records.

Since we were quickly approaching a time in history where African Americans were not recorded by name, we continued delving into census records. We located the 1880 census of an Olmstead and Lucy Rutherford, with their seven children and three grandchildren, living in Haynesville, Houston County – one child is named Crockett. We were able to confirm that this is the same family because “Haynesville” is also noted as being “District 542” in the same federal census records – which links to the 1910 and 1900 census for Crockett Rutherford’s family.

We also located the Rutherford family living in Haynesville in 1870.[13] This census lists Olmstead Rutherford, born about 1820, and his wife, Lucy, born about 1825. Interestingly, Olmstead was born in Virginia.

“Armstead Rutherford + children + wife, Lucy” were contracted in a work agreement with John H. Rutherford of Houston County dated 1 January 1867 and approved 3 May 1867,  The U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau listing for Olmstead Rutherford, circa 1867, includes a contract with John H. Rutherford to “Join forces to put (land) in order” and, once in repair, “a just division of mules, land fowl shall take place (with) each Party – responsible for the good treatment of stock & food for the cultivation of the land.”

In 1860, prior to the contract, John H. Rutherford enslaved sixty-five individuals, ranging from 6 months to 80 years old. The Rutherford property was located outside of Hayneville and consisted of 700 acres of land.[14] The Rutherford home does not stand today.

On 12 July 1867, Olmstead Rutherford registered to vote as a black citizen of Georgia.[15]  The Georgia Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books[16] contain records relating to voter registrations in 1867 and 1868 that met requirements of the Reconstruction Acts. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 required Southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment, draft new state constitutions, and register voters, both black and white. In order to vote, men had to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States, and some were disqualified for their participation in Confederate government posts.[17]

And then, between 1872 and 1877, Olmstead and his son, Crockett, are listed by name on the Georgia, U.S., Property Tax Digests, 1793-1892 database.[18] This record can be used as a possible substitute for census records prior to 1870.

At this time in our research, it would be quite difficult to trace Olmstead back to 1820 in Virginia. There are several scenarios in which he was removed from Virginia to Georgia: a piece of history, unknown for now. But to think – his great-great-great-granddaughter is now a Supreme Court justice!


If you have research to share with Sarah on this subject, please forward it to Research@nehgs.org.

American Ancestors compiled the family research of Ketanji Brown Jackson and Patrick Graves Jackson on our website. You can view our current research and keep up-to-date on new findings here.

Our research was highlighted in The Boston Globe on 10 July 2022 in a front-page article, written by Emma Platoff.  You can view the digital article here.


[1] The title of this post refers to the poem Still, I Rise by Maya Angelou (1928-2014).

[2] 1950 U.S. Federal Census, Fitzgerald, Ben Hill Co., Georgia; Janathan Brown (1946).

[3] Florida, U.S., Marriage Indexes, 1822-1875 and 1927-2001, Ella Ree Ross and Johnny Brown.

[4] 1950 U.S. Federal Census, Miami, Dade Co., Florida; Ella R. Ross (1945).

[5] The Miami Herald, 30 June 1968, engagement announcement.

[6] 1950 U.S. Federal Census, Miami; Carolyn (1948) and Calvin (1949).

[7] How Paul Ryan is related to Ketanji Brown Jackson: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2022/02/25/paul-ryan-ketanji-brown-jackson/

[8] U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007; Ellen Ferguson.

[9] Houston County Probate Court, Marriage License, p. 145.

[10] The Home Journal (Perry, Houston County), 27 September 1923, Image 5.

[11] Houston County Probate Court, Marriage Certificate.

[12] Georgia Department of Public Health Death Certificate, #23353, Crock Relford.

[13] 1870 U.S. Federal Census, Houston, Georgia, Almstead Rutherford household.

[14] Highway map from Ellie Loudermilk at Perry Area Historical Society.

[15] Georgia, U.S., Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books, 1867-1869.

[16] Georgia, U.S., Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books, 1867-1869, Ancestry.com.

[17] Historical data from Ancestry.com database.

[18] Georgia, U.S., Property Tax Digests, 1793-1892, p. 372.

About Sarah Dery

Sarah Dery, who lives in Concord, is the Research and Library Manager at American Ancestors/NEHGS; she has been with the Society since 2017. She supports the researchers and genealogists on the Research and Library teams, managing correspondence with constituents, organizing research information, and applying her genealogical knowledge in assisting our clients – both in-person and digitally. Sarah is a graduate of Rhode Island College in Providence and has a B.A. in anthropology and English Literature. Her interest in anthropology stems from her participation in a week-long archaeology dig at James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia. Her family ancestry and expertise include Rhode Island, Connecticut, and French-Canada.

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