Announcement for Florence African American Heritage Project
Project Say Something and Florence-Lauderdale Public Library are happy to announce the opening of the database, for the Florence African American Heritage Project, February 24, 2018. Please take the opportunity to browse the site: http://shoalsblackhistory.omeka.net/
History from the Ground Up
In Alabama, amateur and professional historians history have written our history over and over again. They have written about great (mostly white) people, important events (the Civil War; civil rights), histories of towns and cities, etc. With places, histories are often written to make the place look better, not worse. Stories of trouble, unrest, tragic incidents, overt racism, and systemic oppression are usually left out in the name of civic boosterism. What is included in local history is therefore subject to debate between the writers and the people who live there. This is an important debate. According to historian Peter Stearns, “history must serve as our most important evidence in the search to figure out why humans behave as we do in society. People need some sense of how societies work simply to run their own lives.” In other words, learning about the history of our city, of our ancestors who lived here, and of their values, will help us to understand ourselves.
The written history of Florence, Alabama is no different from most cities. While the city boasts numerous historic markers, few concern African Americans. The history of African Americans, and to a large extent the history of poor whites, is not a part of the story that is so often told in this city along the Tennessee River. We hear about the important men, about the Native American history of the area, about the history of the Civil War, of TVA, of the amazing music scene that captivated the record industry in the 1970s. But we rarely hear of the people who live here.
In Florence, we are trying something different. We are focusing on the typical, everyday stories that make up our area’s history. We are focusing on history from the ground up. Project Say Something is partnering the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library and the University of North Alabama’s Public History program to conduct three “History Harvests.” These harvests are events held to gather the city’s African American history. People come to these events with their historical documents, artifacts, photographs, newspaper clippings, and stories. PSS and our team of volunteers record the information and digitally process each item. If the item is a photograph, we digitally scan it. If it is a garment, we photograph it. If it is a story, we record it. The participants then take the physical copy of their history back home. We keep the digital copy and put it into an online database.
The online database is one of the essential components to this project. It is a neutral space—it is free for everyone to access as they wish. It is not a museum or a downtown shop or a suburban mall. It belongs to and can be accessed by anyone within the comfort of his or her own space. This database holds the history collected by the harvests. It holds the photographs and stories that make up individual memories. It holds the documents that preserve individual achievement. It holds the items that give meaning to folkways and legends. By holding these seemingly small bits of data, it collectively holds a shared history.
I like to think of everybody’s story as a raindrop in a bucket. Stories may seem insignificant on their own but combined with everybody else’s story it makes a significant collection. That is the idea behind the History Harvest in Florence. We aim to gather as many small bits of information as we can and store them in one place. By doing so, patterns of history will emerge that were previously overlooked. By focusing on the ways in which people lived their lives, we can write this history back into our city’s narrative. This is what history really is. It is not a who’s who of past figures and dates. It is a study of the people and systems that lived before us. As the father of African American history, Carter G. Woodson, states: “the conditions of today have been determined by what has taken place in the past.” This is not just on a national level. It applies to state, local, and personal history. By examining history from the ground up, we see how we arrived at where we are; most importantly, we learn about ourselves.
That is not to say the process has been smooth. People are reluctant to share information with people they do not know. Trust is always earned, and that takes time. But the process has started; the dialogue has begun. Trust will come, and so will stories. And photographs. And documents. And family trees. And in the end, the history will be there for others to learn about. Future generations will be able to access their ancestors’ stories and hear their voices. They will be able to look at the photographs and see the people who paved the way for them, who helped to create the society they will inherit and pass along. By doing so, by listening to the stories of the everyday people who lived and loved and built our city, we will come to an understanding of the history of our city. And hopefully, we will come to a better understanding of ourselves.
Brian is a Master’s student in UNA’s Public History program with a special interest in race and discriminatory housing practices. He hopes to bring his research in local history to bear on issues that continue to impact the Shoals community.