Thursday, July 26, 2007

Tuscaloosa & Greene County AL courthouse records at immediate risk

Will the Alabama Department of Archives & History create a 15th & 16th local government records archive?

My email box has been overflowing with comments from readers with interest in preserving the records in the attic discussed previously in DearMYRTLE’s blog entry titled “Tuscaloosa County Courthouse to scan & destroy original records”.

Noted genealogist, Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG explains: “In past years, I spent much time up in the Tuscaloosa County courthouse attic with those records. They are a goldmine of information not to be found anywhere else on the earliest settlers of the county—many of whom do not show up in the early land, marriage, and probate records. The records in Greene County are in even worse condition. When I last used them, they were piled in an outbuilding behind the jail, with—literally—rusted out lawnmowers piled on top of the heap.”

From: Mike Sullivan

Please stay on top of this story as much as you can. I also got a story printed in the Tuscaloosa News on 03 Oct 2004 pretty much describing the same conditions. In fact, there have been stories in the Tuscaloosa News since 1972 about this and our county officials continue to turn a blind eye.

On 12 Oct 2004, I got the Assistance Director for the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) to tour the attic with the past Circuit Court Clerk. The ADAH committed to helping clean and organize these records, if and when the clerk’s office did a little general house cleaning. That was never done, but it shows that ADAH has known about this for some time.

The description [in the most recent
newspaper report ] that these records are Circuit Court Records is not completely correct. In 1973, Alabama reconstructed their judicial system and many of the old records that are plainly titled “Tuscaloosa County Court” were transferred to the authority of the newly created Circuit Court. [This is an Alabama] state court which today generally handles criminal cases, but these old records are from such courts as the Tuscaloosa County Commissioners Court of Roads and Revenues.

The new (1973) court system took control and responsibility of these records from the Probate Court and gave them to the state-run Circuit Court, who has no use for them.

The present courthouse was moved into in 1964. By design, the top (7th) floor was left unfinished to be used for storage, including janitorial supplies and a maintenance shop. [It is] all open-air with no ceilings or walls but separate areas created with chain link fencing. [There is] no heating, air conditioning or any kind of climate control whatsoever, yet Alabama has the law (Alabama code 1975 section 36-12-2), which has not been amended, that clearly states that all government officials are to maintain their records in conditions that protect and preserve records from utilation, loss or destruction.

Does the storage area I described to you fit that mandate?

The Circuit Court says they have no money to do anything. The Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge says he will not spend county money on state records, yet as I try to point out, these are "OLD" county records. The Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge is the chair of the Tuscaloosa County Commission, and is in fact the courthouse landlord and these records are in his courthouse.

To really describe the conditions, image having a sheet metal building for storage that you never cleaned up or threw anything away. Year after year, you simply opened the door and stuffed another few boxes of records wherever you could put them, including just stacking them in the aisles only for the heat and humidity to cause the cardboard boxes to collapse, spilling their contents all over the floor. You just stomp right across them as you continue to bring in more stuff. I do hope you can see that picture in your mind.

What kind of mess do you think you would have after nearly 40 years of this sort of practice? Remember the Alabama Dept of Archives and History's Assistant Director witnessed this in 2004. I was with her!

Many of the old records are in bound books. I have held in my hands County Court Records dating in the 1820s and 1830s. Unlike all of the surrounding counties, the Tuscaloosa County Courthouses have never been burned and Tuscaloosa was formed before the State of Alabama was created in 1819.

These bound books are suffering from Red Rot, which is a deteriorating process. Red Rot is to leather what dry rot is to car tires and the lack of climate control speeds that process, something ADAH knows about. This Red Rot eats away the leather potions of the books, which causes the bindings to weaken and break, which leaves you with a handful of pages. Although the pages may be in good shape and most still have easily readable handwriting, the pages are getting scattered about and no one seems to care. Moreover, the books are placed on bare wood shelves, witnessed by

You are correct that there has been a
Loose Papers Project. This was done by LDS in conjunction with ADAH, who provided the training for volunteers (many from the local Genealogical Society) and assisted in getting permission from the different courts to copy the records. I attended the first training session in June 2004. It was brought to the attention of Mr. Tom Turly of ADAH, who was conducting the meeting, that there were many old records on the 7th floor that should be included in this project.

This current project was to cover divorce records held by the Circuit Court that covered the years 1925 thru 1950. Later Estate Records, again from the Circuit Court files were added. When the 7th floor records were mentioned, ADAH said they may be included but an inventory would have to be taken and submitted to Salt Lake City for approval. The LDS coordinator was more interested in copying records from the 1920 through the 1950 and wasn't concerned about records 100 years old than those. […] Although LDS would love to microfilm everything, [he said] it just was not economically possible.

I next turned to my local Genealogical Society. The President was initially supportive and helped me bring to passage a standing committee titled "Records Preservation Committee". Our by-laws plainly state that we are to educate ourselves in the methods of genealogical research and preserve historical records whenever possible. [Unfortunately, efforts here have not been forthcoming.]

I am in contact with Karen, the genealogist featured in the latest
Tuscaloosa News article. We are teaming together. She has Alabama Department of Archives and History coming to the courthouse on 01 Aug 07 and I will be there with her. The wagons are circling but we need help from everywhere.

Our thoughts are to create a Local Government Records Archive. There are provisions where records can be transferred to a suitable location. There are 14 such independent Archives in Alabama and ADAH has a program to help create them. Even help with available grants. I have leads on locations but nothing confirmed.

Please talk this up all you will. Tuscaloosa County is not the only county suffering in Alabama this way. On the News Forums, one poster said that she found 19th century records in Greene County just lying on the floor. Our judicial system does not fund the courts to care for old records. The local courts just pile them up and cover them with more stuff and the Alabama Archive people are aware of it.

Others have written describing how political the topic has become. It sounds to Ol' Myrt like the Alabama state-funded “local government records archive” would be a great alternative for both Tuscaloosa and Greene County records in jeopardy.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
Your friend in genealogy.

(c) 2007 Pat Richley All Rights Reserved.

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