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When 14-year-old Josh Burford first heard about a local park where gay men supposedly went to cruise, he was curious if it could be true. It was the early 1990s in Anniston, Alabama, a small town halfway between Birmingham and Atlanta. When he got the courage to visit, he ended up chatting with the men there and thinking: "Holy shit, this is a group of Queer people."
That gay men existed, and in his small home town, wasn't a revelation: Burford's uncle and his partner had been accepted in his family for as long as he could remember. Knowing from a young age that queer men could live openly shaped how Burford came out as gay even in a time and place where doing so could be challenging.
The early exposure to a culture beyond his family, though, led Burford to dedicating his life to preserving the history of the queer South he loved.
Along with Maigen Sullivan, who also grew up in rural eastern Alabama, Burford started planning the Invisible Histories Project (IHP) in 2017, and the two have been working full-time as co-directors since 2018. IHP is dedicated to preserving the stories of the LGBTQ+ South. Today, they're recognized by the Society of American Archivists, with the 2020 Archival Innovator Award, and are collaborating with institutions like the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress—but the road hasn't been easy.
"Even though more LGBTQ people live in the South than in any other U.S. region, we're chronically underfunded and under-resourced," Sullivan tells Scalawag, citing the Funders for LGBTQ Issues "Out in the South" report. Once IHP was able to get start-up funding, the next obstacle was earning the trust of the communities they wanted to celebrate.
"Queer people are skeptical of institutions because we have seen our stuff being thrown in the trash," Burford said. "We have read in the newspaper that our loved ones have died of 'the flu' instead of HIV. So it's no small thing for a 90-year-old lesbian to hand over her collection and say 'Here's my entire life's work. Are you sure it's going to be OK?'"
Once the collection is handed over, Burford says "writing 'gay' on a box and putting it in a corner isn't going to work anymore." He believes that collecting items and not actively sharing them is almost worse than never collecting them all—a sign of disrespect. "To bury these collections is to force this memory back into the closet, and honestly I think it kills us all over again to lose them from our memory."
Since Sullivan and Burford are both white, they recognized the need to build trust would go double for communities of color: "We made sure not to show up with our hands out, but acknowledging our own limitations from our identities and being raised in a system of white supremacy, and listening by asking 'What do we need to know to do this better?'"
But once they laid that community groundwork, Southerners began donating their life's papers and ephemera. "We expected to get about 15 collections in our first year," Burford recalls. "We got 30."
IHP's collections are living parts of the community. Birmingham artifacts stay in Birmingham. Atlanta's history stays there. This way, the community can access their own history at sites like libraries and universities. Instead of only inheriting collections upon an individual's death, IHP has many collections from living people who want to visit their own collections, often with guests.
Before the shutdown from the pandemic, visitors requested to view the LGBTQ+ collections at Birmingham Public Library more often than any other. "I have never seen more connectivity in my life than the connections LGBTQ people gave with these collections," Burford says, adding that an archive is unique in that a visitor can touch and hold the historical objects, unlike a museum.
To help other folks begin queer history collections, IHP started Archiving from Home, a guide available for anyone, anywhere to use. The guide explains how to prepare personal papers and ephemera for donation, and outlines the steps from making a list of the items to organizing them by year or another category.
"We need individual people to see themselves as important," Burford says. "The old flyers, meeting agendas, T-shirts, and ticket stubs we all have laying around will be important for historians years from now."
The nine items below are a sampling of the IHP collection housed in different sites. They tell moments from queer Southern history, glimpses into a culture that Sullivan says "may not look like San Francisco's or New York's, but is rich, diverse, and old." Burford says many factors make collecting Southern queer history different from collecting in other regions, like the relationship-based story these artifacts tell. "You see personal letters inside folders within meeting minutes because the board are all friends and have grown up together."
Burford believes everyone needs to interact with their history in order to learn from their successes and mistakes—especially now as people practice social distancing for public health, a sense of community can be harder to come by.
"When you spend so much of your life in the closet, an archive like this is the antidote to feeling isolated," Burford says.
Patrick Cather, a LGBTQ+ community organizer and collector in Alabama, came across this diary in a thrift store in the mid-1990s. The small book divulges the life story in scrawled handwriting of a gay man who lived in Jefferson County Alabama from 1912 to 1950.
Burford tells Scalawag the content is made up of "journal reflections, poetry, and very flowery text that talks about everything from being at a party with a lover, to falling in and out of love, to his reflections on his life and where he was going."
To date, it is the oldest artifact in the IHP collection.
Photograph of Alabama Delegation to the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (1987)
LGBTQ+ people held large marches on Washington for their rights in 1979, 1987, 1993, 2000, 2009, and 2017. People traveled from all over the country to attend, including, of course, from the South. This photograph shows a group of women who traveled from Birmingham, Alabama to Washington, D.C. together to attend the October 11, 1987 march. This is just one of several groups from Alabama in attendance that year when people were advocating for legal recognition of same-sex relationships, the repeal of anti-sodomy laws, funding for AIDS research, and more.
The photo was donated to IHP in 2018 by Beth Gunderson, who is pictured third from the left in glasses under the "Seale, Alabama" sign.
Photograph of Mabel's Beauty Shop & Chain Saw Repair (late 1980s)
Mabel's was not a beauty shop or a chain saw repair shop, but in fact a gay bar in Birmingham, Alabama that was open from 1986 to 1989. Owner John Elder owned at least one other gay bar in Birmingham, gleefully named Eunice Crabtree's Cut Rate Delicatessen & Bait Shop.
In January 1989, Mabel's bartender David Painter was killed during a violent robbery at the bar. The bar responded by offering a special on Bloody Marys the next day.
"It's one of those spots that people loved and kept images and shirts from," Burford says, who wasn't old enough to visit when these bars were open.
This photo of the hand-painted sign on 14th Street South was donated by Roger Torbert of Birmingham.
Photograph of "Uncle Frank" (1924)
Frank "Uncle Frank" Bowers (birth and death years unknown) was a performer and songwriter in the 1920s in Birmingham, Alabama. He sometimes performed in drag, as in this 1924 photograph donated by his family. Details on Bowers's life are scarce, but IHP does know he worked as a composer. IHP is researching where he might have performed in a time before gay bars, which Burford says didn't start appearing until the 1960s in Birmingham.
T-Shirt Quilt (early 2000s)
Randy Fair, now a teacher in Florida, spent his early years between Alabama and Atlanta and made this quilt out of T-shirts that he collected from LGBTQ+ bars and events he went to and LGBTQ+ and HIV-related community groups he supported from the mid-1980s through the early 2000s. One panel shows a shirt from a Pride Walk/Run in Atlanta, another for an AIDS Walk in Atlanta. Fair's full collection, including this quilt, will be preserved at the Birmingham Public Library.
Photographs of Bronzie De'Marco (1980s)
Bronzie De'Marco of Florence, Alabama has been a staple of the drag scene in Alabama for 50 years. De'Marco has impersonated the likes of Diana Ross and Whitney Houston over the years, and was inspired in part by seeing her uncle, who De'Marco says was the first Black drag queen in Huntsville, Alabama in the early 1970s, perform.
As a child, she would sneak into gay bars to watch her uncle perform and felt safer inside the bars than outside.
De'Marco, who is still performing, donated these photographs from the 1980s to IHP.
Film of First Pride March in Alabama (1989)
On June 25, 1989, organizers expected 50 people to attend the first Pride march to happen in Birmingham, Alabama. Police estimate attendance was 250. This video, titled "Out in the South," shows marchers chanting slogans: "We're out in the South, and we're not going back" and "What do you want? Gay rights! When do you want them? Now!"
Bob Huff filmed and directed the video after being involved in the planning of the march. A filmmaker now based in California, Huff also followed the ACT-UP AIDS Freedom Riders through the South in 1988.
Photographs of the Gourd Girls and Their Work (2020)
Priscilla Wilson and Janice Lymburner met as recent college graduates. More than 30 years later, they live in Sautee, Georgia as artists and gourd farmers. They live simply, on their own terms, selling their pottery and gourd art. Their gourd creations include decorative containers, toys, ornaments, dolls, natural utensils, puzzles, drums, and gourdhead masks.
In their 2016 memoir, Gourd Girls, they write about living "the gourd life" together. The University of West Georgia, IHP's home site in Georgia, houses their collection.
"This Month in Mississippi" Newsletter (1982)
The Mississippi Gay Alliance produced the monthly "This Month in Mississippi" newsletter from 1977 until the early 1980s. It was one of the first political newsletters for the gay community in Mississippi. The black-and-white copies were mailed to an unknown number of subscribers and covered LGBTQ+ political and social events from Mississippi and Memphis from a perspective not covered by mainstream media.
This issue, which features community news from southern Mississippi, along with others, is currently in the holdings of the Stonewall National Archives and Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. After being lost for years, IHP is now working with the Alabama Department of Archives and History to digitize the recovered issues this fall.