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Alabama's State Archives Confronts Its Racist Past

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tags: racism, Alabama, Confederacy, archives, Lost Cause



Hundreds of memorials glorifying the Confederacy had been erected by the time Marie Bankhead Owen built what may have been the grandest: the Alabama Department of Archives and History, which cataloged a version of the past that was favored by many Southern whites and all but excluded Black people.

Ms. Owen used taxpayer money to turn the department into an overstuffed Confederate attic promoting the idea that the South’s role in the Civil War was noble, rather than a fight to maintain slavery.

Now, amid a national reckoning over racial injustice, the agency is confronting that legacy in the state where the civil rights movement was born. In June, leaders formally acknowledged the department’s past role in perpetuating racism and so-called “lost cause” ideals.

“If history is to serve the present, it must offer an honest assessment of the past,” Director Steve Murray and trustees said in a “statement of recommitment.”

Confederate relics have come under renewed scrutiny since the police killing of George Floyd in May sparked outrage about the history of racism in the United States. The wave of protests that followed toppled some monuments and cities removed others as schools decided to part ways with their Confederate names.

Mr. Murray said the department wanted to offer more educational resources after Mr. Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis and issued the statement after realizing it had to acknowledge “that our agency was responsible in many ways for some of the intellectual underpinnings of the development of systemic racism in Alabama.”

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Founded in 1901, the year Alabama adopted a white supremacist constitution that’s still in effect, the department opened with Ms. Owen’s husband, Thomas Owen, as its first director. Located in the state Capitol, where Southern delegates formed the Confederacy in 1861, the department focused on gathering Confederate records and artifacts.

With the country’s first publicly funded, independent archive, Alabama soon became a national model for collecting public records, according to retired Auburn University historian Robert J. Jakeman, who wrote about Ms. Owen. Other states of the old Confederacy followed suit.

“What Mr. Owen did definitely started a chain reaction across the Southern states,” said Daniel Cone, who teaches at Auburn and wrote about Tom Owen.

Ms. Owen took over the department in 1920 after her husband’s death. The agency already had amassed far more items than it could safely store or catalog, and the problem got worse under “Miss Marie.”

Read entire article at Christian Science Monitor

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