In Celebration of American Archives Month

It’s almost the end of October, so that means it’s almost the end of American Archives Month. In honor of the meaningful work being done at archives throughout this land, I want to reintroduce a conversation I had with Jim Baggett, chief archivist at the Birmingham Public Library.

My grandmother – and Bob Dylan – used to say “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know.” I’m not sure if that’s true of Dylan, but I believed my grandmother, a life-long student who died days shy of her 92nd birthday.

If James L. Baggett, head of the Department of Archives and Manuscripts at the Birmingham Public Library, told me that, I’d believe him, too. How could I not? He has worked more than 20 years among more than 30,500,000 documents, photographs and drawings, and other artifacts. And if you’d ever been blessed to attend one of his walking tours, then you know he could rattle off a timeline on Birmingham history in his sleep.

I spoke with Baggett in his basement office at the Central Library. You can join the conversation below.

Are you from Birmingham?

James L. Baggett: Yes, I was born here.

Where did you attend college?

UAB and Alabama. I received my bachelor’s and master’s in history at UAB, and at Alabama I did a Master of Library Science.

How did you become interested in what you are doing now, in archival work?

Sort of by accident. I was a history major at UAB and when I entered the master’s program, I thought I was going to do a straight history master’s, but they offered a public history program, which is about archives, museum management, historic site management. So I did the public history master’s and interned down here with Marvin Whiting who was my predecessor. And then I entered the Ph.D. program at Ole Miss. I thought I wanted to be a history professor, and I found I didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy teaching. I had really enjoyed archives so I came back. I was lucky enough to get a job here and I did the library master’s. I never regretted it.

Did you like Oxford at all?

I liked Oxford a lot. I really liked living there. I liked Ole Miss and I’m glad I went. I finished the classwork; I learned a lot. I just realized the academic world just wasn’t where I wanted to be.

Does it get pretty lonely as an archivist?

Not really. Well, it depends. It doesn’t here. You know there are a lot of archivists who are known as lone arrangers, and they are “one-person shops.” That might get kind of lonely. Down here we have a full-time staff of five. We always have interns, volunteers. So at a given time we’ll have anywhere from six to 10 people working down here. And we serve 150-200 researchers a month so it’s a pretty heavily used collection.

A number of authors have given your department “a shout out” because of your assistance.

There are now more than 300 books that have been published out of this collection. That includes five winners of the Pulitzer Prize. And the last time I counted, there have been over 50 documentaries and film productions researched here, and that includes one winner of the Academy Award, Emmy Award winners, and Peabody winners. There have been at least 30 museum exhibitions researched here. But then you know, we also serve local college students and people researching a house or a building so it’s a broadly used collection.

So, what does the collection consist of, what do you house down here?

We have a variety of things. We focus on the Birmingham area, but within that, it’s a pretty broad collection. We’re the archives for the city so we house city records of historic value. We have papers of the mayors from George Ward to Richard Arrington. We serve as the archives for a lot of local organizations like OMB and the Chamber of Commerce, the YMCA, YWCA, the League of Women Voters, a lot of local clubs. We have company records, family papers. We have the largest collection in existence on the civil rights movement in Birmingham. We have the largest collection on women’s history in Birmingham. We have something in the neighborhood of 30,000,000 documents and half a million photographs.

Of course, you know, when we talk about archives, we’re talking about letters, diaries, notebooks, maps, blueprints, office files, church registers – pretty much anything you can think of, you can use to record information.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve come across in the collection?

Probably fragments from the second Bethel Baptist Church bomb.

That’s my church, actually.

The second bomb, you know the one Will Hall [one of the men who voluntarily guarded the church] picked up and carried out into the streets, we found its fragments in the Birmingham police files. We found metal fragments of the bucket the bomb was placed inside of and pieces of shrapnel from that bomb. Some of those are now on display at City Hall.

How do you keep everything catalogued?

We inventory things at a file level. We can’t inventory all the documents. There’s tens of millions, there’s just no way to do that. So we create finding aids. It’s a guide to a collection that will list each file and tell you what’s there. We try to give a researcher a good general idea of what’s in a collection so they can know which files they might need to look into and which files they could pass over.

What’s your favorite thing about your work?

I guess there are several. Working with researchers is one. People come in with really interesting ideas, really interesting projects, and we find out how we can use our collections in ways that have never been thought of. It’s always fun to start with the research in the beginning, and when it’s done, they produce a book or an article or a Ph.D. dissertation. And finding new collections is fun.

If you could categorize the focus of the researchers, what would it be?

The biggest would be local architecture and historic buildings, and in that you would include land use. In a normal month, we’d have about 100 people come in doing either land use or historic building research. Civil rights is probably the second, especially right now with the 2013 anniversary coming up. We are getting a number of requests.

One thing I try to do when I talk to students is interest them in the other subject areas that are down here. We have lots of material here that’s just not used. With students, I ask do we need another paper on the Black Barons or the Father Coyle murder or would you like to do something new and different.

Have you ever thought about writing a book [Baggett is the author of five books] on one of those unrecognized subjects?

I’ve been working for 10 years on a biography of Bull Connor so I don’t know if unrecognized is the word – barely understood would be a better term. As much as Connor’s been written about, he hasn’t been written about in any complexity. I’m looking at him as a political figure, not just his civil rights study. I’m trying to understand him in a way no one has done.

Are you trying to show him in a more compassionate light?

It’s to try and help the reader understand him. They’re still not going to like him, and they are not necessarily going to be sympathetic to him, but I hope when I finish this, readers will come away with a better understanding. What you find when you start looking at figures like Connor, is how like us they are. Connor loved his family and he took his grandson on vacations. He was a complete person, which is what has never been explored with him before.

We want people like Connor to be totally different from us. We want to keep our distance. I find people get very uncomfortable when I talk about him and they often think I’m defending him when I’m not. I’m just trying to understand him.

Regarding Louise Wooster [Birmingham’s most famous madam, whom Baggett has written a book about], did she and John Wilkes Booth actually have a love affair?

It’s possible. Clearly, Lou embellished the story over the years. It is possible that they could have met and had some sort of relationship. Booth was in Montgomery in 1860 for six weeks, performing. And Lou was working in a brothel in Montgomery at that time. And Booth is known to have frequented brothels, so they both were in the right place at the right time. There could have been an encounter or a brief relationship. She would have been in her late teens at that time, and Booth was a huge star. It would be like having an affair with Brad Pitt now. Now the stories Lou tells later are clearly made up because she turns it into some great love affair. It simply didn’t happen.

Baggett also loves the kids. Photo courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library.

Baggett also loves the kids. Photo courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library.

Jasmine Guy to bring the Harlem Renaissance to life tonight at Samford

Jasmine Guy

Jasmine Guy

Entertainer Jasmine Guy and the Avery Sharpe Trio will present “Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey” tonight at Samford’s Wright Center. Perhaps best known for her role as the pampered BAP (Black American Princess) Whitley Gilbert on the seminal TV show “A Different World,” Guy’s latest endeavor  celebrates and pays homage to those black artists who created enduring works of art amid racial strife. I spoke with her (via email) about tonight’s performance.

The Birmingham Buff: What will attendees of Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey experience? 

Jasmine Guy: This show is different in that we are celebrating a time in our history, the decade between the end of World War I and the beginnings of the Great Depression, where art blossomed for writers, poets, painters and musicians. This was the decade of the birth of jazz. Where Harlem reaped the benefits of white patrons inspire of the constant clamped down of the American Negro. This show is full of joy and information. We were dubbed “edutainment ” by the Amsterdam News after our Apollo debut.

TBB: Why do you think the stories of these artists are important to tell?

JG: Our history is important. We are not told the full African American story in school. So, I rejoice in revealing our American Journey to our audiences through poetry, music , dance and song.

TBB: The show’s release mentions that the Harlem Renaissance artists were looking forward but still struggling with the legacy of slavery and racism. We are now about 85 years removed from the Harlem Renaissance. Do you think blacks in this country are still struggling with the legacy of slavery, and if so, in what ways?

JG: Of course, we are still struggling as African Americans. Until our complete history is told we will continue to struggle. Until we are realized as a full and complete people we will know only a portion of our capabilities. This show helps to address the void. We are taught just a modicum, a minute picture of our stories. We go from Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King and there are many more stories, struggles and songs in between.

TBB: Having left the South for New York City at a young age, I’m sure you can relate to several of the Harlem Renaissance artists who migrated to NYC. Which artist do you relate most to and why?

JG: We are all migrants in the making of this America. We have our own triumphs and humilities. You can say that as a Jewish immigrant or an Irish immigrant or as a  Native American in this American story that ours is completely tragic, but that is not true. This show encompasses the best of us, the best of America…..because that is our true message. In the words of Langston Hughes…. I, too, am America.

“Raisin’ Cane” starts tonight at 7 p.m. Get ticket information here.


What will you do for #MuseumWeek 2015 ?

The powers-that-be have declared this week as #MuseumWeek on twitter, and that’s great for us in Birmingham. Why? Because there’s no shortage of extraordinary museums in our fair city. When was the last time you’ve visited one of the area’s museums? If it’s been awhile, make plans to go this week. Use the list below to help narrow your choices (or just visit them all).

Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum
6030 Barber Motorsports Pkwy. 


Stop by Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum to check out their massive collections of motorcycles, racecars and Lotus cars. For $15 above the price of admission, you can sign up for the premium, docent-led tour. Tours are given Friday and Saturday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and on Sunday at 1 p.m.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
520 Sixteenth Street North

Across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church sits the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  According to its website, BCRI’s mission is “to enlighten each generation about civil and human rights by exploring our common past and working together in the present to build a better future.” You can take a self-directed tour that educates you on the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s as well as today’s fight for human rights. View photojournalist Spider Martin’s photos that chronicles 1965’s Selma to Montgomery march.

Photo credit: Spider Martin

Photo credit: Spider Martin

You can also catch “American Boricua: Puerto Rican Life in the United States,” a documentary project that takes a look at Puerto Rican life throughout all 50 states of the U.S. Click here for the museum’s daily admission rates.

Birmingham Museum of Art
2000 Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd. 

Birmingham Museum of Art

Birmingham Museum of Art

The Birmingham Museum of Art has been in existence for almost 65 years. It’s a great place to view the galleries alone or bring the kids along to participate in the museum’s fun drop-in art programs and tours. On this Saturday (March 28) from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., families can drop by to make an African necklace or bracelet with the museum’s mascot, Bart. Later that day (from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.), adults and teens can enjoy a public tour of BMA’s new exhibition “Small Treasures: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Their Contemporaries.” Tickets are free to BMA members and $12 for non-members.

McWane Science Center
200 29th Street North

If you have children, then chances are you’ve been to the McWane Science Center. But it may be time to visit again this week, on your own or with the kiddies in tow. The center was designed to foster a life-long love of learning for folks of all ages. In addition to the permanent exhibits, there’s the temporary exhibit “Mindbender Mansion,” where visitors can try to master brain teasers and more.


The center is also home to the city’s only IMAX cinema. Click here for general admission prices. 

Southern Museum of Flight
4343 73rd Street North

If you’ve never been to the Southern Museum of Flight, this is the week to find out what you’ve been missing. Located a stone’s throw away from Birmingham’s airport, the museum will open your eyes to the region’s rich aviation history. Right now the museum is featuring an exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen called “Enduring Legacy.”

Tuskegee Airmen

Some of the other exhibits include “Korean War Jets,” Vietnam War Helicopters,” and the “Lake Murray B-25,” which features the aircraft that was recovered from the South Carolina lake in 2005. During WWII, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) conducted exercises there. Contact the museum at 205-833-8226 for admission costs.

Vulcan Park and Museum
1701 Valley View Drive


Designed by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti and cast from local iron in 1904, Vulcan, the world’s largest cast iron statue, is definitely the museum’s star. But a trip there should consist of more than just a visit to the observation deck. The museum offers a riveting look at events that helped shape Birmingham. Did you know that Ensley was once home to Little Italy? If you haven’t checked out “La Storia: Birmingham’s Italian Community,” visit the museum this week to learn more about early Italian residents. Click here for admission costs. 

Sonia Sanchez

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

I’m sharing interesting tidbits I’ve recently learned about Birmingham and some of her people. These items may be new to you as well or just a reminder. 


Did you know that Sonia Sanchez, the famed poet, playwright, essayist, etc., was born in Birmingham? Born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934, Sanchez was named for her father, jazz musician and teacher Wilson Driver (who studied under John “Fess” Whatley).  Some of her collections include “Homecoming” (1969), “I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems” (1985), and “Morning Haiku” (2010).

Sonia Sanchez Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger

Sonia Sanchez
Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger

From “Morning Haiku”

Let me wear the day
Well so when it reaches you
You will enjoy it

Read more about Sanchez here.

Keeping Traditions Alive: Saint Elias celebrates diversity through annual festival

When Theresa Garnem arrived in Birmingham from Lebanon in 1972, she was excited, yet a little anxious to navigate a new world.

“I was 11 years old, and came over with my grandmother.  I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Garnem.

Garnem began attending Saint Elias Maronite Catholic Church almost immediately. She said she was happy to find a place that embraced the customs of Lebanon.

“Saint Elias reminded me of church back home, so much tradition. The food, the dance, the hymns, they remind me of home.”

The food, dance and other aspects of the Lebanese culture will be on display this Friday, May 25, and Saturday, May 26, at the Lebanese Food and Cultural Festival on the Southside campus of Saint Elias, the only Maronite church in Alabama.

This is the 16th year of the festival, which was started by Paul Bolus.

Bolus started the festival because “we wanted our culture, heritage, and religion to be known in the Birmingham community,” he said.

Bolus said he and others would go to various ethnic festivals to see what it took to take on such an endeavor.  “The people who put on the Greek festival really helped us that first year,” said Bolus.

He feels it’s not only important for the church to educate the public on their ways and customs, but to also make sure those customs are passed down to future generations.

Garnem agrees. She works with both girls and boys in teaching the traditional dance Dabke.  The dance imitates the movements of those who pick grapes and stomp them to make wine.

Gerry Kimes joined Saint Elias when he married his wife Beverly in 1970. Kimes said Saint Elias’s services “spoke to me,” and his fellow congregants welcomed him from the start.

Beverly Kimes said the church is a family-oriented one. When I asked how many people attended Saint Elias, she didn’t answer in terms of individuals. “There are about 300 families,” said Beverly.

On the day I visited the church, Beverly was busy preparing zalaybah, a type of Lebanese donut.  Gerry Kimes offered me one, which I accepted. Its taste reminded me of a beignet without all that powdered sugar. He also offered a cup of strong Lebanese coffee. “It’ll wake you up,” he said.  Since I’m not a coffee drinker, I passed.

Kimes likes the idea of welcoming the community with food. “The best way to get people’s attention is to feed them,” said Kimes.

The congregants begin planning for the next festival almost immediately after the current one wraps up.  They begin preparing food in February.  Bolus expects almost 9,000 people to attend this year’s festival.  And before the weekend is over, they’ll serve:

2100 chicken halves
2000 pounds of kibbe
6800 spinach pies
2000 meat pies
12,000 grape leaves

There will also be several specialty dishes that are made in smaller batches.

To make sure the traditional recipes are not forgotten, the church created a cookbook in 2008. There are several dishes that have more than one recipe, as if no one could make a decision as to whose recipe would be admitted because each was just as worthy.

The festival goes from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is free, and credit cards are accepted.

Guided tours start each hour beginning at 11 a.m. from the front steps of the church.   Guided tours will end at 7 p.m.  Guests can also take self-guided tours on both days from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Note that no tours are available at 5 p.m. on Saturday during a liturgy service. The parish started in 1910 in a different location.  The congregants have worshipped in their current location since 1950.

Theresa Garnem

Theresa Garnem

Gerry and Beverly Kimes

Gerry and Beverly Kimes

Below is a recipe for the zalaybeh. There are two recipes in the book, but I’ve chosen the first one to list here.


121/2 pounds self-rising flour
21/2 pounds plain flour
1 cup self-rising cornmeal
½ envelope yeast dissolved in lukewarm water
Approximately 1 cup vegetable oil (add water to correct consistency)

Honey butter:
1 large tub of vegetable spread
1 bottle of yellow label table syrup
1 cup of powdered sugar

After mixing dry ingredients, add water-yeast mixture and then vegetable oil. Knead thoroughly, punch down and then resume kneading. Form a shallow cross with your hand in the center of the dough. Let rest 5 minutes before preparing doughnut balls.

Flour work surface and squeeze dough balls about 10 to 12 at a time. Gently roll in hands to smooth and pat off excess flour. Roll lightly in cornmeal (also spread on adjacent work surface) and place in large plastic tub, layering balls and lightly sprinkling cornmeal to prevent sticking. Continue until all balls are handled and placed in tub. Cover with damp cloth and allow to rise about 3 hours prior to frying.

To prepare honey butter, whip all ingredients together until smooth and fluffy.

Prior to frying, stretch out each individual dough ball and fry in a hot skillet of vegetable oil, turning once until golden brown. Immediately cut lengthwise into center about ½ deep and heavily spread honey butter mixture. (Sprinkling donuts with powdered sugar is your choice.) This recipe makes about 150 doughnuts.