The Alabama Historical Commission (AHC) is the official historic preservation agency of the state of Alabama. Headquartered in Montgomery, Montgomery County, AHC was established by the Alabama Legislature in 1966 to protect, preserve, and interpret state-owned historic sites as well as assist with local preservation activities as outlined by the federal National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966. Currently, the AHC owns and maintains 15 sites throughout the state of Alabama and administers a broad swath of federal and state historic preservation programs.
Alabama Historical Commission Logo Earlier efforts at historic preservation had been attempted on a national level, but it was not until the early 1960s that serious attempts towards enacting legislation were made. They were a response to widespread urban renewal and the expansion of the highway system that destroyed historic neighborhoods, business districts, and city blocks all across the country. In 1966, the Special Committee on Historic Preservation, chaired by former Alabama congressman Albert McKinley Rains, released the report With Heritage So Rich, which would eventually lead to the passage of the NHPA. Incorporating recommendations from the report, the NHPA established permanent federal institutions, including the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the National Register of Historic Places, and the State Historic Preservation Office to coordinate preservation efforts with individual states. Importantly, the law also created a clearly defined preservation process and the structure for new state institutions devoted to historic preservation. In response to this legislation, on August 19, 1966, Alabama governor George C. Wallace signed Act Number 168 of the Special Session into law and officially established the AHC. Designed to carry out the state’s efforts under the guidelines of the NHPA, the AHC’s primary mission is two-fold: to preserve and promote state-owned historic sites and to provide statewide programs to assist people, groups, towns, and cities with local preservation activities.
Fendall Hall Currently, the AHC owns and manages 15 historic properties that encompass forts, battlefields, historic houses, museums, and archaeological sites throughout the state. Military-related sites consist of Fort Mims, Fort Morgan, Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson, and Confederate Memorial Park. Archaeological sites consist of Old Cahawba Archaeological Park, the Bottle Creek Indian Mounds, and the Forks of Cypress. Historic houses and museums consist of Belle Mont, Fendall Hall, the Freedom Rides Museum, Gaineswood, Magnolia Grove, Pond Spring (the General Joe Wheeler Home), Mobile Bay Middle Lighthouse, and the Alabama State Capitol. Each year, these 15 historic sites are visited by more than 300,000 people from all over the world.
Fort Morgan AHC operates in conjunction with federal guidelines and agencies as set forth by the NHPA. The AHC is directly responsible for administering federal mandated programs such as Section 106, National Register of Historic Places, Certified Local Governments, and the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program. At the state level, the AHC administers the Underwater Cultural Resources Act, the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage, Cemetery Program, Historical Marker Program, and the Alabama Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program, which helps offset the costs of some preservation efforts and projects. In addition, AHC oversees the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in the state, the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage, and the Alabama Cemetery Register. Furthermore, the NHPA mandates that AHC review projects using federal money or require licenses to determine their impact on Alabama’s historic structures and archaeological sites.
The Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage is a statewide listing of historic resources that include buildings, structures, objects, districts, and cultural landscapes that are deemed worthy of preserving by the organization. This list is always expanding and is available on the AHC website to help the public access information on its many individual sites, which number more than 3,000. The AHC cemetery program provides assistance in identifying, documenting, registering, and protecting historic cemeteries throughout the state of Alabama. The AHC historical marker program provides signage designed to educate the public about significant buildings, structures, objects, events, cemeteries, and districts in the state. The AHC also offers local planning assistance for towns who want to develop and maintain local preservation ordinances.
Crocheron Columns in Old Cahaba To assist it in preserving and promoting Alabama history, the AHC has created a number of advisory councils to help guide the organization’s focus. In 1984, it established the Black Heritage Council (BHC) to advocate and advise the Commission on the preservation of places important to African American history in Alabama. The BHC is the first African American advisory council attached to a state historic preservation office in the country and the only statewide organization whose sole mission is the preservation of African American historic places. AHC also created the Maritime Heritage Program, which works to protect maritime archaeological sites in Alabama waters and to advance awareness and understanding of the role of maritime activities and sites in the state’s history. In 2018, for instance, AHC was involved in a multi-agency effort to identify a shipwreck uncovered in January in Baldwin County to determine whether it was the remains of the Clotilda, the last ship to bring enslaved persons to the United States. It was ultimately proven that it was not that ship. In spring 2019, however, the remains of the Clotildawere discovered in Mobile Bay and identified with the assistance of the National Geographic Society and other organizations. The Council of Alabama Archaeology provides advice and archaeological services to the general public and to the AHC for management of its historic sites.
Financially, the AHC is primarily supported by state money and federal grants from such agencies as the National Park Service. For example, in January 2017, the AHC received funding through the National Park Service’s Underrepresented Communities Grant Program to develop the Alabama Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Survey and National Register Nomination Project to collect information that will formally recognize all six of the four-year HBCU’s in Alabama and help support their preservation efforts. Nonprofit organizations created to support individual sites have also provided occasional funding. They include the Cahaba Foundation (Old Cahawba Archaeological Park), Friends of Fendall Hall, Friends of the Forts (Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson Park), and the Historic Magnolia Grove Foundation, among others. The commission itself, in turn, solicits applications to distribute grants to local preservation and educational efforts and has awarded money to such organizations as the Colbert County Historical Landmarks Foundation, Inc. (operates Belle Mont); the Friends of Fendall Hall (operates Fendall Hall); the Friends of Gaineswood (operates Gaineswood); the Magnolia Grove Foundation (operates Magnolia Grove); and the Fort Mims Restoration Association (operates Fort Mims).
Pond Spring In an effort to promote historic preservation and highlight endangered historic sites, the AHC, in cooperation with the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation, solicits nominations from the public for the annual Places in Peril list. It details the threats posed to many of Alabama’s most significant historical resources. Currently, the Alabama Historical Commission consists of 22 board members who represent a broad cross section of Alabamians, some of whom are appointed by the governor. The agency employs approximately 30 individuals at its Montgomery headquarters in addition to site staff around the state. The AHC executive director also serves as the Alabama State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), who is responsible for carrying out functions delegated to the state by its federal partner, the U.S. Department of the Interior and for the nomination of historic properties and sites for placement on the NRHP