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Alabama People: Dr. Ed Bridges

Alabama history: a fresh perspective

Ed Bridges, for 30 years the director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, recently published a new bicentennial history, Alabama: The Making of an American State. Released last fall by the University of Alabama Press, the book is a comprehensive resource for anyone seeking a broad understanding of Alabama history. We talked with Bridges about the book, which in some ways, he says he’s been working on all his life.

– Lenore Vickrey

Why is it important for Alabamians to understand our state’s history? 

If you think about it, our understanding of history sets the framework for all of our ideas and attitudes—not only about public policy issues, but about encounters we have with people of different backgrounds. To make the best of our opportunities, being as knowledgeable and informed as possible is very helpful. I also think that having an understanding of the concerns and issues of other people helps us work with them more effectively. There are many other reasons, but it also seems to me that we are enriched and broadened as people if we can see ourselves in the larger flow of life of which we are a part.

What is your favorite period of Alabama history?

I love the whole story. My book is divided into seven chapters, which reflect the period divisions that make most sense to me. Each chapter or period seems to have its own narrative arc that is powerful and profound in its own way. And each has its own clusters of people and events that give the big story of the period flesh and life. But then seeing the way these periods flow and link together makes for a big history of Alabama that I think is wondrously rich.

Announcements about the book say it gives readers a “new perspective” on the social, political, economic and culture forces that have shaped the state.  Can you elaborate on that “new perspective”?

We have not had an overview of Alabama history written for the general public in decades. Over the course of this time, scientists and engineers in Huntsville helped send a man to the moon. The system of segregation was abolished. The structure of Alabama’s heavy industry and textile manufacturing changed profoundly, and hundreds of thousands of people moved from farms to cities. We are now part of a global community shaped by sweeping technological changes that hit us with accelerating speed. Having lived through these changes causes us to see the world differently than we did a half a century ago, and I think we need history books that include these more recent stories and that reflect what we have learned from them.

Now that the book is published, what is your next project?

I’m very much involved in helping with the state’s upcoming Bicentennial celebrations, which will begin in March 2017. For two and a half years, covering the years that began when Alabama became a territory and ended when we became a state, groups across Alabama will be developing programs and activities to commemorate our history—the whole story of how we became who we are today. It should be an especially wonderful time for more exploring of Alabama history more deeply.

What do you read for pleasure in your spare time?

I love the “great courses” programs and am doing one now on the Italian Renaissance. I also try to mix serious works, such as Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, about Robert Moses and the building of modern New York city, with fun reads, such as The Boys in the Boat, about the U.S. rowing team in the 1936 Olympics—which, by the way, is a wonderful book. And I am going back to dig out some of the classics I missed along the way, such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Can you think of a richer feast than that?