Righting a Wrong: State boosts preservation of Black history

Published: Feb. 24, 2022 at 11:16 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 24, 2022 at 11:37 PM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - The racial justice protests of June 2020 found their way to the steps of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. In fact, you can find a record of the protest on the archives’ own website. It’s presence is one step in an effort the agency is making after determining that something they had come to believe had to be said out loud.

“The state of Alabama founded the department in 1901 to address a lack of proper management of government records, but also to serve a White Southern concern for the preservation of Confederate history and the promotion of Lost Cause ideals. For well over a half century, the agency committed extensive resources to the acquisition of Confederate records and artifacts while declining to acquire and preserve materials, documenting the lives and contributions of African Americans in Alabama.”

Archives director Steve Murray wrote the statement of recommitment over several days around the protests with the support of the archives’ board of directors.

“We knew as an institution that we had resources that could be useful to the public because our, our core belief here is that history should be useful,” said Murray. “So we wanted to be part of the solution, but to do that, we knew we needed to acknowledge being part of the problem.”

Murray says the effort to change started in the 80′s and included acquisition of Jim Peppler’s photography of Black Montgomery from the mid 60′s, and just last year, the acquisition of WSFA’s video archive, with WBRC in the process of making the same donation too.

“I had an experience here at the University that was not your everyday type of experience,” said Vivian Malone Jones, the first Black graduate of the University of Alabama. “There were some traumatic moments there.”

Since its statement of recommitment, the archives has tried to accelerate efforts to seek out more artifacts reflecting the presence of Black people in Alabama history, like the uniform of former Greene County Sheriff and farm operator George Washington Hall, the work of quilter Mary Jones of Montgomery, and evidence of the most recent efforts at social justice.

Another important element of the archives’ effort, one that you can take part in, is making some of the records it already has, easier to use.

“My parents are both from Bullock County, Alabama, and I’ve been down there all my life. and his grandfather was enslaved there.”

Retired Army veteran True Lewis of Kentucky has spent years volunteering to transcribe various records for the archives, which recently started using a piece of software to transcribe county voter rolls from 1875 into a digital format, so anyone can search for their ancestors online.

“These records go hand in hand with the 1867 voter registration books. And together these two records are the first very often as the first state record, where we see large numbers of formerly enslaved, African American men who are now recording their full names, right? So they’ve chosen a surname during, in freedom after emancipation and are registering in this government document who they are,” said Murray.

“It was just pure or joy to know that I could see my grandfather’s name in black and white, and that he was a human being and that he had a right to vote,” said Lewis. “As a family historian and a genealogy, it gives me another year to add a timeline to my ancestor. It puts them in a place, a location.”

And while it may not have been part of the archives’ plan, Murray shared some thoughts on how to navigate the discussion over critical race theory versus black history.

“We talk about what happens in the past and in some cases, the really inhuman, inhumane ways that one group of people treated another does not mean that generations alive today are guilty for those actions or responsible for those actions, or should feel guilty about them,” said Murray. “That’s not the point of an honest and clear-eyed exploration of these moments in the past. You know, I think it’s up to all of us who have a role in this dialogue, K-12 educators, museums and historical organizations and the media to really underscore those points that this is not about casting blame on people who live today.”

“The point in understanding these experiences that our forefathers and foremothers had is to understand the costs that come when we don’t work together, to be sure that the rights guaranteed by our Constitution and by this Democratic Republic that we live in. If those aren’t in effect, truly guaranteed for all people, there are some horrible consequences that can come about as a result of that and that’s a good lesson for all of us to learn no matter who we are.”


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