By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
For historians, authors, researchers, academics, or anyone else looking for information about city of Birmingham history, the road usually leads to one person—James Leo Baggett Jr., who has overseen the Birmingham Public Library (BPL) Archives and Manuscripts Department since 1997.
But now, Baggett, 60, who is also an archivist for the City of Birmingham, said it’s time to retire and work on other things. His last day at the BPL was June 23.
During a recent interview, Baggett told The Birmingham Times, “Honestly, I’m tired. I’m just ready to pursue some other things, … and I think it’s a good time. We’ve got a really good staff in the archives, so I know the department is going to be in good hands.”
Baggett was first hired as a full-time BPL employee in 1993. In 1997, he earned his MLIS degree from UA and became library’s head archivist. Coming into the role, he understood that there are two types of people who do the job—those who view themselves as archivists first and those who view themselves as historians first, he said.
“I function as a historian. … I research and write and lecture. People who are trained as archivists [first], honestly, are more knowledgeable than I am on technical issues and things like that, but I’ve always seen myself first as a historian,” Baggett said.
During his career, Baggett published four books, in addition to serving as president of the Society of Alabama Archivists and chair of the Jefferson County Historical Commission. He’s also given numerous lectures and talks, as well as curated numerous exhibitions for the Archives and Manuscripts Department.
He has received numerous awards from the Alabama Historical Association and the Alabama Library Association and in 2021 received the University of Alabama (UA) School of Library and Information Studies Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) Alumnus of the Year.
An Early Interest
Baggett, born in Birmingham in 1962, was raised in the small former mining community known as Acmar, now incorporated as part of Moody in St. Clair County, Alabama. Acmar led the young Baggett toward his first love: history.
The Baggett family moved to the community in the 1950s, when the Alabama Fuel and Iron Company had houses in the area for sale after closing mining operations in Acmar. Baggett’s grandparents bought a house in the community. After Baggett was born, his mother, Martha, and father, James, for whom he was named, bought a house across the street. Though mining ceased before Baggett was born, many relics of that past remained in the community during his youth.
“We would go out through the woods, and you could follow where the old train tracks had been. … The mines were still open [because] they hadn’t been sealed,” he said. “When I was a kid, we would play in those mines, which was not really a smart thing to do, but we did it.”
While exploring the area where he grew up, Baggett found old objects, like railroad spikes and tools, further sparking his interest in local history.
In his youth, Baggett said, he was further pushed toward history by his grandfather, T. E. Carmack, who shared a love for it. In the summers, Carmack would take his wife, Jane, as well as Baggett and cousin Donna, on four-week car trips across the United States.
“We would go to battlefields, forts, historic houses, and things like that, so I kind of grew up immersed in history,” Baggett recalled. “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by that.”
After graduating from Moody High School in 1981, Baggett enrolled in Jefferson State Community College and then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in 1986. In 1988, he earned a master’s in public history from UAB.
In 1987, Baggett interned for the BPL under Marvin Whiting, then the director of the Archives Department, but he left for the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, where he planned to pursue a Ph.D. in history. In 1991, however, Baggett decided that the academic world wasn’t for him, so he returned to Birmingham, where he started working on a grant-funded project at the BPL.
That project concerned records the library had acquired from the Kaul Lumber Company, formerly headquartered in Birmingham.
Baggett said, there’s a lot of “mundane” work in processing a collection of records like the ones from the Kaul family: “You transfer everything to archival-safe folders, you remove metal, staples, paper clips, things like that. You either organize it or figure out what the organization is, and then you create a guide that lists that each file and tells the researcher, very generally, what’s in those files and what time period they cover.”
At first blush, the records of a lumber company don’t sound interesting, Baggett said, but the Kaul Lumber Company’s mill in what is now Tuscaloosa, Alabama, had achieved a level of national renown for its intentionally livable company towns.
“They built actually very nice houses, and, like a lot of company towns, they had schools, a hospital, a park, a ball field, and the employees managed a lot of this,” Baggett said. “There also was a street railway and a waterworks that employees managed themselves.”
The records also contained history of land deals going back to when the land was occupied by the people of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, many of whom were forced out of Alabama in the 1800s during the Trail of Tears, the displacement of Native American people from their ancestral homelands by the U.S. government.
“By that point, I knew I wanted to work here, so it was a great opportunity and a way to keep [BPL administration] aware of me,” Baggett said. “I enjoyed it a lot.”
By Baggett’s count, more than 500 books, including five Pulitzer Prize winners, have been researched at the BPL.
“We have had Academy Award-winning documentaries researched here and an award-winning television show,” he told BPL Public Relations Director Roy Williams. “We have a curio from our collection on display at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, as well as at the [National Museum of African American History and Culture] in Washington, D.C., and other places all over the country and around the world. We have a collection that is heavily used not only by people from around the world but also by local folks.
“People come in every day to research their house, their church, their neighborhood, their school. We are a lot of things to a lot of people. Birmingham is very fortunate to have archives like ours,” Baggett said.
The archivist/historian also told Williams that the library is a repository for many documents many may not know about.
“We are the official archives for the city, so we preserve many records for the city of Birmingham,” Baggett said. “We have government archives back to the founding of the city. We have archives for a number of churches and synagogues. We have letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photographs, maps, architectural drawings, office files, ledgers.
“As the official city archives, we house old Birmingham jail dockets, including the jail docket that records the arrest of [the Rev.] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement and the adults who marched with him during the 1963 campaign.”
A Productive Retirement
In retirement, Baggett said he has a few goals. His first priority doesn’t sound too unlike his current work—completing a biography on Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, the infamous former public safety commissioner of Birmingham, who ordered the use of fire hoses and police dogs to disperse marchers during Civil Rights demonstrations in 1963.
The book, which Baggett said he’s been working on for years, would be the first “full-scale biography” of Connor.
“We know Connor as the dogs-and-hoses guy, which he was, but he had a long political career. I mean, his political career started in the 1930s. … Before that, for 15 years, he was a radio sports announcer, very popular. He is, I argue, one of the critical figures in American history because of the way he reacted to the demonstrations here,” Baggett said.
As a research undertaking, Baggett said the book has led him to parts of the BPL’s archive of Connor’s documents to which many researchers never pay attention. While a lot of Connor’s files are simply “ordering typewriter ribbons and stuff,” Baggett said he’s seen hints of preparation for an all-out “racial confrontation” by whites in Birmingham.
“It was fascinating to look at their thought processes,” Baggett said. “They’re watching other cities, they’re watching things happening in other cities, and they’re freaking out because of racial incidents and demonstrations in those cities and things happening in other places.”
In addition to the book, Baggett said he would like to travel more with his wife, Marci, who he met while studying library science at UA in the 1990s, and his daughter Jane Ann, 22. Though he traveled all over the United States during those summer trips with his grandparents, who have since passed, Baggett said he’s still never visited New England, something he intends to correct.
More than that, Baggett said he’s looking forward to “not having to be so diplomatic anymore.”
“I’ve always had to … leave my opinions and sometimes my principles at home because [I] had to be able to work with a lot of different people, … but I always saw it as all being for a greater good,” he said, adding that he’s excited for newfound freedom.
“In retirement, I can say whatever the hell I please. You can’t cancel me. I’m retired,” said Baggett.