Birmingham is known for its rich history. Through an internship with the Birmingham Public Library Archives, local student Margaret Schedler was able to shed some light on our city’s history and help preserve it while uncovering many fascinating archival collections. Here’s a look at the cool things she discovered and how The Altamont School helped make it possible.
An interest leads to an internship
Margaret first learned about the Birmingham Public Library Archives during a class field trip with The Altamont School—a private college preparatory day school located atop Red Mountain in Birmingham.
Since she was young, Margaret has always been interested in history, and with her newly discovered knowledge of the archives, she decided to do something bold.
“I remember cornering Mr. Jim Baggett, department head for the archives, and asking him if they needed interns.”Margaret Schedler, Student, The Altamont School
Surprised and impressed by Margaret’s courage, Baggett welcomed her to interview for the role. With the encouragement of Dr. Andrew Nelson, Margaret’s favorite history teacher and mentor at The Altamont School, she decided to go for it. Needless to say, she got the job.
“I left my interview with a copy of Mr. Baggett’s amazing book, A Woman of the Town: Louise Wooster, Birmingham’s Magdalen and newfound knowledge that it is a bad idea to wear wool while working in the basement of an old building.”Margaret Schedler, Student, The Altamont School
Learn more about The Altamont School and its positive impact on local students.
“Lives in little boxes”
Each day, Margaret would take the lengthy walk from the parking lot to the archives department. Down four flights of prominent marble steps, past the Linn-Henley Research Library and along the mural-lined walls hand-painted by Eliza Winters.
Once she crossed the threshold to the archives department, the allure of uncovering history pulled her to her desk each day, which was set before a window overlooking Birmingham’s historic Linn Park.
It was here that Margaret was guided by Baggett who quickly became a mentor for her.
“Mr. Baggett gave me a chance to express where my historical intrests tended to stray. What was wonderful about the archives was that I had full autonomy over what direction I wanted to work.”Margaret Schedler, Student, The Altamont School
One of Margaret’s main tasks was to look through specific archive collections to create “finding aids”. These are tools that help archivists find information in a specific record group, collection or series of archival materials.
While creating finding aids, Margaret discovered she gravitated towards the history of everyday people in the south and preserving their identities.
“Sometimes I wrote what I found down in a notebook. Other times, I included my findings in the finding aid itself. I have hope that one day people will go looking for these histories and find complex, interesting lives in little boxes of artifacts.”Margaret Schedler, Student, The Altamont School
Discovering the Ragland Family collection
One of the most interesting collections Margaret processed was the collection belonging to a wealthy Black family from Birmingham, the Ragland family—or as she likes to describe them, “the Raglandian Dynasty”.
“Out of racial depravity from powerful whites in Birmingham came a flourishing family of color that is just as socially significant as the Morgans, Vanderbilts and Roosevelts. We teach students about the banking, railway and political giants of the early 20th century, but we leave out affluential families like the Raglands who are a core pillar of Birmingham.”Margaret Schedler, Student, The Altamont School
Brushing off a thin layer of dust on the collection’s box, Margaret was quickly intrigued. In it, she discovered a treasure trove of historical relics:
- Tax returns and bank statements
- Property records for a house in downtown Birmingham
- Drafts of a will written in “neat cursive”
- Paper slips signed by Alabama’s Board of Education for approved teaching qualifications from the early 1930s/40s
- Photographs from the early 20th century,
- A pamphlet from a first-class dining car
- A pocket-sized testimony of a Black man’s firsthand experience with racism
“Over time, I felt like I got to know the Ragland family through these small aspects of their lives.”Margaret Schedler, Student, The Altamont School
To read more about Margaret’s findings of the Ragland collection, check out her story in The Altamont School’s online newspaper.
More incredible discoveries
The pieces of the past Margaret got to unravel during her time at the Birmingham Public Library Archives are remarkable. Here are a few outside of the Ragland family collection that she found most fascinating:
- A piece of bomb shrapnel from one of the bombs that was thrown into Fred Shuttlesworth’s church.
- Ankle shackles that have once chained people (mainly Black boys and men) together while forced to work in the Birmingham mines.
- A prison docket that includes the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Altamont School creates avid learners + dream chasers
It was during that first class field trip to the Birmingham Public Library Archives with The Altamont School that led Margaret to an internship that not only nurtured her love for history and research, but fueled it into a passion and pathway toward her future.
“I have used the writing, researching and reading skills that I learned from my experience as an intern and as an Altamont student to continue my passion for preserving history.Margaret Schedler, Student, The Altamont School
She also encourages others to follow in her footsteps.
“Interning at the Birmingham Public Library Archives was an incredible experience and one I recommend to any student interested in history who wants to get involved with our current historical narrative.”Margaret Schedler, Student, The Altamont School
Are you interested in learning more about the Birmingham Public Library Archives? You can visit the website here.