I am attending the Federation of Genealogy Societies Conference in Birmingham, Alabama this week. Day One, Wednesday, was mostly devoted to society sessions and activities. While interesting, I thought 2-1/2 days of genealogy sessions would be overwhelming enough, so I made other plans.
I hoped to go to the nearby Linn-Henley Research Building at the Birmingham Public Library and pursue some research on my ancestors that spent some time in Tuscaloosa before the Civil War. I also hoped to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute if I could manage it. In many ways, the Civil Rights Institute would be a very personal family history journey since my parents took part in several aspects of the civil rights movement.
So I spent the morning at the Civil Rights Institute. Once inside, no pictures are allowed. I learned the story of the struggle for basic human rights that took place in the deep south over a period of 400 years, from slavery into its aftermath. Birmingham was, famously and tragically, an extreme example of oppression and hatred based on race. Government, controlled by whites after Reconstruction, made sure to use the law to legitimize the customs they preferred. Basic rights of citizens, such as voting, were denied to many blacks in the south. After World War II, what was unacceptable became unbearable. Nowhere, perhaps, was the struggle more difficult or monumental than Birmingham. It is no wonder that Birmingham was the focus of many efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King.
And Birmingham had its own powerful leaders in the fight, including Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. The struggle fought issue by issue, for voting, riding buses, eating in restaurants, getting government jobs, education … without the federal government stepping in at many times, and the efforts of attorney Thurgood Marshall to make that happen, success would have been in serious doubt.
As I learned more about the civil rights activities of the early 1960’s I felt a deep connection to the struggle that was playing out in the exhibit. My mom had participated in several of those events. My parents had a vision about the world and tried to live it (still do, in fact). My memories of those years include, as a 5 or 6 year old, looking at the news on our black and white television with my brothers and sister “looking for mommy,” to see if we could see her in any of the large crowds. As I stood in the museum I was that little girl again, looking for mom in the 20 foot image of the March on Washington, or the pictures of protesters in buses.
What I hadn’t expected was that as I was looking at images from 1963, I was also wondering about my family’s history of 1863 when some of my northern family spent about 20 years in Tuscaloosa. I thought of my great great grandmother Emma Lamphere, who was a little girl during the civil war and experienced the hatred and violence of that era. Could she ever have pictured her great granddaughter (my mom) returning to Alabama 100 years later to help to bring some peace and justice to those that (I suspect) Emma felt should be oppressed and marginalized? Legacies are never as simple as we would like them to be. I had to admit that I have connections to both sides of this dreadful fight.
I left the museum newly determined to learn more about the Tuscaloosa portion of my family history. I passed the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of one of the many Birmingham bombings of places used for civil rights gatherings, and Kelly Ingram Park, where young protesters were treated brutally by Birmingham police in 1963.
I arrived at the Linn-Henley Research Building at the Birmingham Public Library around noon and spent the afternoon there. If any FGS attendees were missing from the conference, they were surely here. The rooms were filled with researchers.
There were more Alabama resources there than I had ever seen. Shelves and shelves of local histories, some of them privately published or reprints of university theses. There were several large sets of compiled indices that I had only heard of, never seen before. I spent hours looking through them. I turned up very little directly about my family, other than some evidence of Confederate Soldier service by two of my gg-grandmother’s brothers. But I was able to photograph an entire hundred-page book containing three accounts of the 1865 experience of the city of Tuscaloosa, for examination later. With little direct evidence to go on, I will start the real research with learning about Tuscaloosa.
All in all, I wonder if my visit to the Civil Rights Institute didn’t teach me more about my family history than any library could. That, and meeting up with my fellow bloggers, who I am now realizing can be reliably found in the hotel bar each night. Those conversations were wonderful.
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