I remember the day my qualms vanished. New on the job in July 2002, I did what most historians and genealogists only dream about: I entered the cloistered and sacred “stacks” of our co-publisher, the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) in Montgomery. I viewed the inner sanctum of Alabama history’s most treasured store.
Hosted by Ed Bridges, the ADAH director at the time, I explored nine ﬂoors of rare gems—shelves and cabinets holding myriad records and fascinating artifacts. I even got to touch Hank Williams’s hat and the shoes George Wallace wore the day he was shot. Driving home that day, I thought, “If being editor of Alabama Heritage gets me days like this, I’ll never look back.” And I never have.
Since that day in the stacks, the ADAH has added a new wing housing the awe-inspiring EBSCO Research Room, with state-of-the-art storage beneath and the Museum of Alabama above. A highly skilled team provides assistance in the research room under the direction of Nancy Dupree, a genealogy expert with many years’ experience in Alabama family history research.
It does not matter if you are a seasoned genealogist or a beginner; the ADAH is worth the trip. More than once I’ve heard Dupree tell apologetic beginners, “We are public ser-vants. We are here to help you.” She sees the research room archivists as teachers.
For Dupree it’s not just a job or a duty. She takes pleasure in helping people solve family history problems. She tells of a woman who visited the ADAH some time back, wanting to ﬁnd anything at all about her grandfa-ther, who had been more or less erased from her family story when he went to prison. When Nancy brought out the state penitentiary records, and this visitor saw her grandfather’s name on written records for the ﬁrst time, she burst into tears. Happy tears. The records made him real.
Nancy recalls another time that the records at the ADAH solved a mystery of national signiﬁcance. In 1996 China presented Pres. Bill Clinton with identiﬁcation tags recovered from the 1944 mountain-side crash site of a US B-24 “Liberator,” which went down with ten US Army aviators aboard and had been presumed lost at sea. Living family members were located for all but one, Sgt. Robert L. Kearsey, whose records indicated possible kin in Alabama. The US Military’s Mortuary Aﬀairs unit contacted the ADAH, and Nancy went to work, using the voluminous Surname Files. The ADAH’s Surname Files and Vertical Files represent nearly a century of news clippings, gathered by Alabama family names and topical themes. She found the airman’s closest relative, now in her eighties or nineties, in a nursing home. DNA conﬁrmed the kinship, and his family reinterred Kearsey’s remains in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2000. Kearsey was one of two brothers lost in action in WWII; the other, Grady, has never been recovered.
The ADAH serves as the repository of our state government records and preserves many records of county governments. It holds the most complete set available of Alabama newspapers. For Alabama genealogists, this will provide vital detail to family histories and can be borrowed through local libraries. The recent acquisition of three million news photos oﬀers an unprecedented gift to genealogists.
The ADAH also actively acquires private records of all sorts, including diaries, letters, personal papers, family Bibles, scrapbooks, and photographs. It also holds a vast collection of very useful maps, tools vital to genealogy.
I still get a buzz when I walk into this building, and my wonder grows every time I discover a new treasure there. If you’ve taken your research as far as you can back home, plan the trip to Montgomery. Make sure you read the “Visiting” information at http://archives.alabama.gov/research.html, to ensure you arrive during their operating hours and bring with you what you need.
When you get there, no matter how smart you are, ask for help. You’ll be glad you did.
Donna Cox Baker has served as editor-in-chief of Alabama Heritage since 2002. She acquires history texts for the University of Alabama Press, co-chairs the Statewide Initiatives Committee of the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, and hosts the Golden Egg Genealogist blog (gegbound.com).