Among the threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic is diminished funding for the libraries and government offices that provide public access to records. As organizations make difficult decisions about how to adjust to lost revenue, historical and genealogical communities should be on alert for reductions in services and the risks posed by inadequate management of collections.
I have noticed something counterintuitive as I attend both genealogy and history conferences. It mystifies me how rarely I see the same set of people at both. With so much in common—so much to learn from each other—why do the fields tend to separate so entirely?
I confess, I have dealt with a sort of guilt as I bounce between the two environments. It is as though I am cheating on my true passion. But which is my true passion?
When asked, as part of my work at the state archives, to locate a divorce record for Rev. Albert Lee Creel—I did not expect to find much. Creel, a Methodist preacher born in Mississippi in 1859, lived only briefly in Alabama. What I found, though, was layer upon layer of insight into private lives at the turn of the nineteenth century. Creel v. Creel offers an excellent study in why divorce cases are worth preserving.
I first learned of the Seventh-floor Records Project one night at a meeting of the Tuscaloosa Genealogical Society (TGS). A member with a remarkable gift for hilarious storytelling stood to report on her adventures with the project. She told us what she had found while indexing the newly digitized divorce records for late-nineteenth-century Tuscaloosa County. “Apparently, everyone committing infidelity in Tuscaloosa did it right smack dab in front of a crack in the cabin wall, at the exact moment someone just happened to peek through, while innocently passing by,” she said. She had my attention.
At a summit of genealogical and historical society leaders in 2017, I was surprised to learn that most of our state’s local societies have their own special collections of local and/or family history materials. Some have their own shelves or a closet within a local public library. Some have a filing cabinet in a local courthouse. At least one owns a very special library.
As I write this, I begin my second term as president of the National Genealogical Society (NGS). My mind turns to what drew me, an Alabama lawyer, to join the organization twenty-seven years ago.
In the summer of 1992, Elizabeth Shown Mills—one of the most incredible mentors any genealogist could ever hope to have—suggested I join the NGS. I had met Elizabeth at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. Fortunately, I had the good sense to pay attention. As has always proven to be the case with any of Elizabeth’s suggestions, the NGS has been invaluable. As an NGS member, devoted reader of the NGS Quarterly and the NGS Magazine, and an attendee at NGS conferences, I have learned more about genealogy than I could have anywhere else.
Due to their fragile and ephemeral nature, paper records, like personal papers, are often difficult to find (if they survive) and to preserve. Many genealogists have horror stories of finding paper records (or not finding them) in burn piles and trash dumps or in ancient trunks and barns. Our ancestors often kept important pieces of paper, but with the passage of time, these fragile materials are forgotten and left to deteriorate. At a time when everyone seems to adhere to the motto that digitizing everything will fix all archival problems (bad news, it doesn’t work that way), paper records remain the sine qua non of genealogical research—and they require special attention when trying to preserve them.
That piercing stare. That demanding finger. A century after World War I (WWI), viewers still squirm under Uncle Sam’s steely gaze. They are motivated to act, and quickly. Now look into those eyes again today—and consider yourself recruited. The Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) has launched its first crowdsourced transcription project, and we want you to join the effort.
In the growing list of delights emerging form our state's three-year bicentennial, the Alabama Public Library Service (APLS) has acquired a statewide subscription to Ancestry Library Edition, making this database available for free at every public library in Alabama through 2019. This modiﬁed version of Ancestry.com gives library patrons free access to more than 30,000 databases of name-rich world-wide records, containing billions of historical documents and millions of historical photos. The library edition oﬀers many of the same resources available in the paid version of Ancestry.com, without the tree-building technology. It presents a great way to get started in family history research before you are ready to invest in the paid edition of the genealogy powerhouse that Ancestry.com has become.
Genealogy took on a whole new dimension for me about nine months ago. Alabama Heritage associate editor Susan Reynolds showed me a bill of sale for a woman her ancestor purchased many generations ago. It occurred to me for the first time that I should be documenting any enslaved persons my ancestors held. Like Susan, I should be making the information available to those who will value it.
That bill of sale and countless other documents that could help the descendants of slaves find their heritage often remain in the hands of the slaveholders’ descendants. Virtually all references to enslaved populations in public documents fall under the slaveholder’s name. And slaveholder’s descendants, myself among them, have to go through those records line by line to do our own family histories, anyway. Who better than we, then, to take a hammer to the “brick walls” of African American genealogical research from the other side?
“Adventures in Genealogy” is a regular department in Alabama Heritage magazine that spotlights the many ways people are uncovering their roots in Alabama.