It Came from the Archives: The Alabama Bicentennial and You

Dr. Marty Olliff's monthly column turns its attention to Alabama's upcoming bicentennial and how current residents can preserve their history.

Dr. Marty Olliff's monthly column turns its attention to Alabama's upcoming bicentennial and how current residents can preserve their history.

Alabama will celebrate the bicentennial of its admission to the Union on Dec. 14, 2019. Such anniversary celebrations often lead to an uptick in interest in history.

This happened at the national level in 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, with many states funding historians to travel to colonial archives to copy papers and Congress funding publication of the American State Papers series.

It happened again in 1876, the Centennial of the U.S.’s birth, with the U.S. holding its first World’s Fair in Philadelphia and President Grant calling upon Americans to write the histories of their home town.

It happened again in in 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, with celebrations all over, the Freedom Train traveling around the country, and historical societies casting off their narrow membership rules and democratizing membership.

Even though Alabama is in the middle of three years of commemoration, there’s a danger that the “spirit of the bicentennial” will fade quickly, and with it the interest in our own history. What can we do to avoid merely celebrating and moving on?

Consider that history is what we can reconstruct of the past from the records and similar traces left to us. Enter the archives – not a repository necessarily, but collections of personal, family, and institutional records that are preserved and available for research.

Most of us don’t consider ourselves important enough to merit being remembered, but even the most representative people are worth remembering because they represent the mass of our neighbors.

Here are 5 concrete things we all can do to keep the “spirit of the bicentennial”:

1) Collect your stories and those of your family. For those without a paper trail, record their oral histories.

2) Collect your personal papers. We all have papers that document our lives. Keep such papers in a dark, clean and temperature/humidity controlled environment.

3) Do the same with photographs, and identify as many people in those pictures as possible. Write on the edge of the photo’s back, in pencil, not across the full back in ink, or add a sheet of paper to each with the details.

4) Business, church, and other institutional records require a bit of thought, but keep anything they make public as well as year-end financials, policy records, records that reflect how the business is organized, and work product. Sensitive records can be closed for a long time — at least until the statute of limitations expires. A word to preachers: if you write your sermons, keep those with your church records, too.

5) A final category: scrapbooks. These provide a wealth of information about what you or your organizations believe reflect them and are important.

Make sure that you have a landing place for your personal and institutional archives, and make sure that landing place makes your records available to researchers. Your public library might have a local history room or your local historical society might be willing to take your archives.  But don’t just appear on their doorstep with your trove; work with them now to make sure they will accept your materials in the future. Space is at a premium, so all libraries and repositories have limits on what they accept.

Contact regional archival repositories like the Wiregrass Archives. One of our collecting policies is to accept papers documenting the lives of people and institutions in the Wiregrass of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.

If you want to make a real contribution to the history of your state, the place to begin is not with devising a big project but with retaining and preserving your personal and organizational records.  History is what we can document, and YOU are as significant a part of history as everyone else.

Keep the spirit of the bicentennial alive – document yourself, your family, and your institutions.

It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.