Alabama Department of Archives and History

Dear Blog,

I’m going to have to keep this short as I really want to get back to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, but I wanted to slip you a wee tiny little update.

Which reminds me, I’ve told you none of the things I’ve done in Montgomery thus far, so please forgive me a brief summary bullet list:

  • The Montgomery Visitor Center is in a lovely old train station that overlooks the Coosa.
  • Riverfront Park offers even better views of the river.
  • NewSouth Books has a neat little shop in addition to their publishing ventures. Amazing nice people! And a lot of offerings on Alabama, the South, and the civil rights movement.
  • The Rosa Parks Museum is fantastic. I think it’s designed to be particularly engaging to children (say middle and high school) with it’s holographic recreation of her arrest, but I was overwhelmed by the artifacts and documents included too. I took notes with my cell phone, including misspellings from the police reports hung on the wall.
  • Court Square is as best I can tell circular, but the fountain is magnificent, and it was from there that I saw te sign pointing me to NewSouth.
  • I spent one afternoon and evening reading books (Jake Adam York’s fine Murder Ballads and the 1938 edition of History of Alabama for Junior High Schools) on Huntington’s campus lovely and especially peaceful as it’s been abandoned for spring break. I got some snaps of the giant bullfrogs in a nearby frog pond, but how can I photograph first their low croaks, like old stairs creaking, then their birdlike chirps and almost human squeals as they jumped from the sides to the pond’s depths, leaving only tell-tale bubbles and circular wakes of their breath to brake the pond’s black glass surface? After the sun set and the mosquitoes came out, I retired to nearby Sinclair’s, at Andrew Hudgins’ kind suggestion, for a light supper and bourbon neat while I finished my reading.

I should say in one go how nice everyone has been here. From the hotel clerk checking me into my tiny budget studio to the gentleman who works the front desk at the archives yesterday (and really *everyone*–I could list them each individually, but that would quickly become its own project).

So, the archives! I’m excited. Yesterday in my usual bite-off-more-than-I-can-chew manner, I made a list of far too many things to consult. I need to winnow it down, surely, but I’m excited. And I feel a bit ashamed to say how excited I am, as some of what I’ll be looking at is terrifically gruesome and heartbreaking and shameful, even though some of it is also lovely and uplifting, like the archives building itself, which is far and away the most beautiful library I’ve ever been in: Alabama marble everywhere! The hall of blackened bronze busts that greeted me as I entered through the south side of the building! The murals along the domed foyer that leads to the reading room, which itself feels like some hallowed temple. The handsomely appointed break room, as if “break room” could describe the rich carpets, the sturdy but artful wood tables each with its own lovely lamp, the wall adornments (surely paintings and rich draperies, but perhaps tapestries too?). And I was told that if I liked I could just sit there and read, even bringing my own books from home! (I fear I overdo the exclamation points, but my exclamations are genuine.)

But ain’t that Alabama? Beautiful and hauntingly tragic all in one breath? The first thing I took a picture of in Montgomery was the soap dispenser in the Montgomery Visitor Center. It’s a common plastic dispenser, but it bears a decal of the city’s great seal that reads both “Cradle of the Confederacy” and “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.” That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

Then yesterday, quickly browsing the archives’ exhibits before leaving for the afternoon, I noticed not only that I was staring at the left-hand glove and battle sword of Nathan Bedford Forrest (“that devil Forrest,” a placard read, reminding us of Grant’s epithet for N.B.F.) but that the display box was within thirty feet of a portrait of Rosa Parks (and if my later recollection is correct, it’s even closer to a whole exhibit of Spider Martin‘s photographs from the Selma to Montgomery march).

“Awful,” a friend I was texting last night remarked when I described the proximity of relics of the founder of the KKK to portraits and photographs of civil rights leaders. It is awful, in a sense, for sure. Ironic, too, perhaps. But also very true to Alabama’s history, even if the Forrest exhibit made no mention of his being the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

It would also be shameful to erase that past, to fail to acknowledge the connection between the Confederacy and the Civil Rights Movement (they are connected almost as kin by the Ku Klux Klan, though also much, much more), even though those connections are actually mostly left unstated. It’s only by their proximity in words on the great seal or in relics and photographs in exhibit halls that they’re suggested. But that suggestion, even by proximity and juxtaposition, is something.

It is fearful work to connect what now seems to be two veins of our past: the Confederate legacy and Alabama’s significant role in the civil rights movement. We are at a place where we are comfortable acknowledging and paying tribute to these two elements of our past separately, but we still struggle with what to do with them together, I think.

But who would have thought in 1965, after Bloody Sunday when police beat marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge or even the third march that made it to Montgomery but also included the murder of Viola Liuzzo by the KKK, that a stretch of I-85 leading into Montgomery would be called The Martin Luther King, Jr., Expressway? That the most first and prominent exhibit in the archives would be dedicated to the march?

I have more to say, but I should save some of it for the poems, right? I’ll be like Dr. Jesse J. Jackson, my history professor from Montevallo, not the more famous Dr. Jackson, and leave you with some keywords for next time (which might not surface here on the blog, alas): identity & pride & how to say “I love you” in Alabama and not break your own heart.

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4 thoughts on “Alabama Department of Archives and History

  1. Thank you for a wonderfully poignant reflection on the history of our state and the Archives itself. You have captured the crux of the work we attempt to do in communicating the relevance of the past to the present. I’d like to share with you some ideas we have on thinking collectively about civil rights, the Civil War, and an earlier but vital episode in Alabama history, the Creek War.

    If you are interested in hearing more, please send me an e-mail at your convenience, or ask for directions to my office during your next visit to the Archives. I would also enjoy hearing more about your work and the dissertation.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind comments. As I’m sure you can tell, I am but a novice of Alabama history, and I’d be positively thrilled to meet with you and hear more about your work on the Civil War, civil rights, and the Creek War.

    I’m planning to return to the archives tomorrow to browse the exhibits and then to visit the Civil Rights Memorial Center down the street, and then to come back again on Tuesday. I’ll stop by your office to see if you’re available, but I’m also here through the rest of the week. And I’ll be in fairly easy driving distance from Mobile or Tuscaloosa throughout April.

  3. Jess,
    There is a bittersweet quality to Alabama, and the folks I’ve met from there. There is a sense of pride, and a sense of humor, a warmth, charm and there is still, in the end, so many contrasts. Your post really got me. I’m married to someone from Mobile, and when he read your post, it was like being home.

    thanks,
    Fyre

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