The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 8, 2013

Limestone Archives seeks local black historical records

By Karen Middleton

— “Most of our records are lily white,” said Limestone County Archivist Rebekah Thompson Davis. “I want our archives to contain the complete history of all of Limestone County, not just of the white movers and shakers. I want this to be the archives of the entire community.”

Toward that end, Davis has joined with three other archivists in the state to integrate public archives. She is joining with Huntsville-Madison County Archivist Savanna Leberman; Alabama A&M University Archivist Veronica Henderson, and Tuskegee University Archivist Dana Chandler to prepare a paper to present to the National Archivists Meeting in Washington in 2014.

“We will speak on integrating public archives,” said Davis. “However, we haven’t been approved for our talk.”

Davis had already been working with a group of Trinity High School graduates on collecting records of the school begun by the American Missionary Association immediately after the Civil War to educate the children of former slaves. The school closed in 1970 with integration.

Her efforts to collect histories on black residents gained a giant boost when visitor Imogene Burrell stopped by the Archives and asked for directions to Inez’s Soul Food. The restaurant is just across the street. Davis told her where to find the restaurant, but also chatted with her.

“Mrs. Burrell came back a couple of weeks later and I asked if her church kept updated records on marriages, deaths and so forth,” said Davis. “She came back a couple of weeks after that and brought me a whole bagful of funeral programs. Then Lois Scott came in and brought me some more funeral programs. We have about 200 of them now.”

Davis scanned and copied the funeral programs and assembled them into a book and returned the programs to Burrell. Scott, a Trinity graduate and retired educator, had not picked up hers.

“We have white funeral home records, but not the first record from black funeral homes,” said Davis. “Death and churches are two areas of segregation that still exist in this community.”

Of those persons in the funeral programs, Davis said most did not have published obituaries in local newspapers.

“But we have these two ladies who wanted to keep up with these and share them,” said Davis. “Most of the documentation was lost to slavery and Jim Crow laws. Hispanics here today are flying under the radar. Jim Crow laws made black people illegal in their own communities too.”

Davis said that as well as lack of official documentation there has also been few of the black community to collaborate with archivists.

“If we’re going to include black history, it’s going to have to come from the black community,” said Davis.

However, she said whites might also be holding important links to black history. Local resident Frank Westmoreland brought in the forward to a doctoral dissertation written by his then-20-year-old grandfather, Theo. Westmoreland, in 1855 submitted to the University of Nashville for a degree of doctor of medicine. The dissertation is titled: “Anatomical and Physiological Differences in the Ethiopian and White Man.”

Davis said the paper puts forth many of the prevailing beliefs of the time, which were used to refute ideas of leading abolitionists.

“I’m not here to scrub history,” said Davis. “My background is in journalism, and it was my job then to find the facts, and it’s the same on this job, the facts are the facts.”

Davis is encouraging anyone with information on black history, be it photos, places, buildings, events or family Bible records to bring them to the Archives to be scanned while they wait.

“It’s going to be interesting if we get to give our talk in Washington,” said Davis. “There are three big groups of archivists meeting there from all over the U.S. and maybe Canada. Many of them will have pre-conceived ideas about the South and Alabama. I want to show them things are changing.”