Keeper of Alabama’s True History
It serves as Alabama’s breadbasket.
The Alabama Department of Records and History, established in 1901, was the nation’s first state records service. The large building, catty corner of the State Capitol, serves as a repository of the state’s public records, from governors’ correspondence to city clerk papers.
During the first decades of its operation, the archives focused on preserving the relics of the Confederacy, often turning a blind eye to the history of other eras and communities. That began to change under former director Ed Bridges, who began to shift to more inclusive exhibits, including contributions from blacks and Native Americans.
Then came Steve Murray, who gained national attention in the summer of 2020 when he wrote about the archives’ efforts to tell Alabama’s fuller story. Today, the Archives Department houses artifacts from the pre-colonial period through the Civil War and Civil Rights era to modern times.
“For more than half a century, the agency has committed considerable resources to the acquisition of Confederate documents and artifacts while refusing to acquire and preserve records documenting the lives and contributions of African Americans. in Alabama,” Murray said in a statement approved by directors. and the Associated Press wrote in 2020. “If history is to serve the present, it must offer an honest assessment of the past.”
For these contributions, Murray is the Montgomery Advertiser Community Hero for August, an honor sponsored by Southern University.
For Murray, history is not a collection of dry, dusty facts presented in textbooks or objects placed for display on museum shelves.
“Well, in my mind, history is not the past,” he said. “I think a lot of times people think that history is just what happened at a particular time and that as long as we know dates and names and places we have a good understanding of what’s going on. is the story, and I don’t think it’s true.
“History is our understanding of those events and how we make sense of the decisions that were made and the events that happened and how we put them into context. And so, history is very much alive.
Born in Louisiana, Murray came to Alabama in 1993 to pursue graduate studies at Auburn University. He had plans to teach at the college level after graduate school, but he began working in the field of public history. He came to the Alabama Archives in 2006 as assistant director for administration. (It’s a fancy title to wear a bunch of hats, including finance and facility oversight as well as running the Alabama Museum Project.)
The effort opened in two phases in 2011 and 2014. He continued his education during this time, taking graduate courses and archival studies.
When Bridges retired in 2012, after around 30 years as manager, Murray was promoted to the front row and became manager on October 1 of that year.
“I think the value of history lies in our ability to understand who we are and where we come from,” he said. “There is a human desire that many people have at some point in their lives. To know: ‘Where am I from? And, ‘How were my ancestors on a personal level?’
Generations of Alabama elementary school children have made the trip to Montgomery to walk the marbled halls of the archives. Usually the trips included sack lunches on the expansive grounds surrounding the building.
That’s exactly what drew Olivia Tayler and her 8-year-old son, Madison, to the archives recently from their Lee County home. Madison is home schooled.
“I remember coming here when I was in fourth grade,” Tayler said. “It really sparked an interest in history in me, an interest that has followed me my whole life. So when the opportunity came up to do the same trip for Madison, it was really a no-brainer.
For his part, Madison appreciated the pre-colonial exhibits because he is interested in the first Alabamians.
“We just studied the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and how it opened up the land for settlement before Alabama became a state,” he said. “So I was very interested in that period.”
The battle took place on March 27, 1814. General Andrew Jackson, commanding a mixed force of soldiers, militia, and Native American allies, defeated a force from the Creek Indians, ending tribal opposition to white settlement in the southeast of what was then the Mississippi Territory.
Alongside the exhibitions, real work continues in the back room where essential documents are kept in search of everything from legislative actions to genealogy. The public has access to these records.
It’s key to the archive, giving the public “invaluable” access to Alabama’s history, said Richard Bailey, Montgomery historian and former community hero. He first came to the archives in August 1979 while working on his doctorate in history.
“The archives are key to any research and understanding of Alabama’s history,” he said. “There was a shift to include contributions from women, minorities, African Americans, and I’m so proud that those stories were included.
“There was a time when African Americans didn’t feel welcome there. I grew up in Montgomery and we used to drive past this building on our way downtown without even taking a look. Everything has changed and the effort has been going on for years.
“The archives serve as a primary source for African Americans interested in their genealogy. Or to conduct research on any topic. I can honestly say that there hasn’t been a single day that I didn’t feel welcome when I browsed the archives.
The summer of 2020 and the nationwide call for racial reckoning has proven that now is the time to admit the past wrongs of the archive, Murray said.
“In 2020, we released a statement that, in the context of everything that happened that summer, was to say that we have resources available to people who are trying to understand,” he said. he declares. It was “the first time I’ve seen white Americans trying to understand the roots of racial injustice and concerns about police brutality. And it’s rooted in history.
“This is where the value of history comes in and can help us understand how it happened. This can help people whose mindset and background are not aligned with minority perspectives.
It was important to spread the word.
“It can help us develop that sensitivity, so we wanted to make sure that the public knew that we had these resources available and that if we were to promote them as a resource, we also knew that it was important to be very clear and honest about our own contributions as an organization and building this long legacy of systemic racism that was on everyone’s mind,” he said.
Preserving history makes sense, because to a large extent it pays pennies.
Montgomery stands at the crossroads of two eras in American history: the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. A few yards from the building where the telegram was sent in 1861 calling for the bombardment of Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War, stands a statue of Rosa Parks in Court Square. Parks’ refusal to give up his seat on a bus to a white man in 1955 helped spark the Montgomery bus boycott. The boycott is considered by many historians to be the birth of the modern American civil rights movement.
Montgomery has made great strides in capitalizing on its history in the form of tourism. Hotel stays are on the rise. Tourism dollars are pouring in.
“I always say, ‘Come for the story, leave with the truth,'” said Ashley Jernigan, hospitality and tourism consultant for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. “The archives’ work to be more inclusive in storytelling can be an example for other cities and states. We have seen an increase in our history-related tourism in recent years.
“Montgomery is becoming a must-visit destination. It’s incredible for a city of this size. We tell people you have to come to Montgomery as one of your stops, and a wonderful way to start is at the archives.
The archives are the cornerstone of preserving the history of the city and the state, she said.
“Look at central Alabama,” she said. “You have Montgomery, Selma, other cities involved in the civil rights struggle. A good place to start any visit is the Voices of Alabama exhibit at the archives.
“You get the context, the real story, of what happened. It’s an incredible resource.
Proponents say a tourism dollar spins more than seven times into the local economy.
“So we know people want to have fun on vacation,” she said. “So when you come to Montgomery, visit the safari, the zoo, the whitewater park when it opens.
“But also plan time to visit our historic sites, especially if you are going on holiday with children or young people. And visitors eat in our restaurants, they go to our stores, they buy gas. Tourism has an impact on the economy for everyone.
Back at the archives, efforts are underway to digitize the documents held there. There are approximately 750,000 articles that have been placed on the agency’s website. Some of those articles are a single postcard and others can be a 400-page book, Murray said.
“So you have millions of pages available to people,” he said. “And you can jump in and explore any topic that interests you.”
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