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It serves as Alabama’s attic.
The Alabama Department of Archives and History, established in 1901, was the first state archives in the nation. The big building, catty corner from the state Capitol, serves as the repository of public records in the state, from governors’ correspondence to town clerk documents.
For the first several decades of its operation, the archives focused on preserving relics of the Confederacy, often turning a blind eye to the history of other eras and communities. That began to change under the tenure of former director Ed Bridges, who began making the shift to more inclusive exhibits, including contributions of Black and Native Americans.
Then came Steve Murray, who gained national attention in the summer of 2020 when he wrote about the archives’ efforts to tell the more complete story of Alabama. Today the Department of Archives houses artifacts from the pre-colonial period through the Civil War and civil rights era to modern times.
“For well over a half-century, the agency committed extensive resources to the acquisition of Confederate records and artifacts while declining to acquire and preserve materials documenting the lives and contributions of African Americans in Alabama,” Murray said in a statement that the trustees approved and the Associated Press wrote about in 2020. “If history is to serve the present, it must offer an honest assessment of the past.”
For these contributions, Murray is the Montgomery Advertiser’s Community Hero for August, an honor sponsored by South University.
For Murray, history is not a collection of dry, dusty facts presented in textbooks, or items placed for show on museum shelves.
“Well, in my mind, history is not the past,” he said. “I think very often people think that history is just what happened at some point and that as long as we know dates and names and places, then we have a good grasp of what history is, and I don’t think that’s true.
“History is our understanding of those events and how we make sense of decisions that were made and events that happened and how we put that into context. And so, history is very much a living thing.”
Born in Louisiana, Murray came to Alabama in 1993 for graduate school at Auburn University. He had designs on teaching at the college level after grad school, but he started working in the field of public history. He came to the Alabama archives in 2006 as assistant director for administration. (That’s a fancy title for wearing a bunch of hats including finance and overseeing facilities as well as shepherding the Museum of Alabama project.)