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Documenting LGBTQ+ histories in the South gets a boost

Pride Flag
Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images
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Protest defending the human rights fro LGBTQi people

A nonprofit organization that documents the history of LGBTQ+ people in the South has been awarded a $600,000 grant. APR has more about the Invisible Histories Project and what the funding will be used for.

Maigen Sullivan is the Director of Research & Development for the Invisible Histories Project. The non-profit started up in 2018 and is based in Birmingham.

“Basically, what we do is research locate, preserve and make community accessible LGBTQ history in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and we're moving into the Florida Panhandle,” said Sullivan.

The letters LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer and questioning.

“We don't have a traditional archive,” explained Sullivan. “Instead, we work with institutions like universities, museums, libraries and the community in order to make sure that materials oral histories, all of the community's historical production is relocated into safekeeping at a local university, a local library, something like that.”

You can’t buy a ticket or plan a visit to see the Invisible Histories Project. It doesn’t have a physical space. But that doesn’t stop donors from adding to the collections—take Don Mills for example.

“I had a huge collection of Pride t shirt from, from the years, as far back as I can remember,” said Mills. “I was on the Pride Board for like ten years, so I had all the stuff that happened while I was on the Pride Board. I had a collection of pride guides that I gave.”

Mills also contributed some audio recordings about a prominent member of the gay community in Birmingham. The tapes are about a man named Perry who talked with a journalist about being gay in during the 1940’s. These are recordings Mills says he was happy to donate to the Invisible Histories Project.

“So that people can hear those recordings of one of our permanent gay founding fathers here in town talking about the experiences from the very, very early days,” said Mills.

Josh Burford is a Historian and Archivist for the Invisible Histories Project. He said the recordings and memorabilia from Mills are just a few things found in the project’s collections.

“We're nearing the 80 collections mark in Alabama,” said Burford. “And in Mississippi we're hovering right around 40. Georgia, because we started the expansion right at the beginning of the shutdown for the pandemic... we haven't collected as many.”

Burford said the collections vary depending on whether they're from an individual or from an organization, but generally collections fall into three categories.

“We have a manuscript collection which are things like letters, documents, posters. That also includes photos,” Burford explained. “We have electronic media, so like fully digitally born materials that only exist online recordings: tape, audio recordings and VHS. And then ephemera are things like textiles. Dresses and ball gowns and T-shirts and banners.”

The Invisible Histories Project, or IHP for short, was recently awarded a $600,000 grant. The money from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is for the group’s work in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and the Florida Panhandle.

We heard from Maigen Sullivan at the beginning of our story. She said the funding will help expand and diversify the IHP collections. It will help the non-profit do more work in the community. Sullivan said the grant also helped them hire another worker.

“So, this Mellon Grant is gonna bring on another person that will help us create exhibits and do community talks and bring the materials that the community produced back to it,” said Sullivan. “And we're super excited for that. And I know that there's a big hunger for Southern history.”

Sullivan says the IHP is always looking for new items for the collections and takes pride in sharing LGBTQ+ stories.

“You know, if you've got a flyer from a pride parade 10 years ago, we want talk to you about it. We want to see it become part of the mainstream. We want to really infiltrate these places where so far queer history hasn't been preserved, and we're very slowly chipping away at that. So, look through the drawers and let us know.”

For information about donating items to the collection or to get in touch with the nonprofit, you can visit Invisible History.org. You can also reach out through Facebook and Instagram.

Baillee Majors is the Morning Edition host and a reporter at Alabama Public Radio.
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