Spirit of Alabama: Historian helps families find long-buried details
Steve Davis has worked for the Alabama Department of Mental Health for 47 years. In all that time, he’s done a variety of jobs, but he found his calling when he became the department’s historian.
The more he learned about the lives and deaths of the thousands who stayed at mental health facilities including Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, the more he recognized the importance of keeping their memories and records intact. If nothing else, it’s a matter of respect, he said.
“The individuals here should be recognized as an individual, treated as an individual,” Davis said. “Some of them were famous, some of them were obscure. But they’re all children of God.”
When you walk through any of the four cemeteries in which Bryce Hospital once buried its dead, you won’t see many graves. The ones that remain are few and far between; most are poorly marked. Many graves were marked with a small iron or a long-since vanished stone or rock.
When those men and women were buried, attitudes about mental illness and its treatment were much more archaic. People with dementia, those suffering from many mental health issues or even patients who’d undergone traumatic injuries were considered incurable. Many were committed to what was then called the Alabama Insane Hospital.
Once they arrived, they were destined to die there until treatment facilities underwent drastic changes in the 1980s.
For families searching for lost loved ones, Davis pours through the records he’s amassed, skimming for any sign of a name, a date, a reason. While those loved ones are long gone, they don’t deserve to be forgotten. Any tidbit of information is useful, Davis said, and it can offer families closure. That’s why he’s still doing what he does, after all.
“If it was just a job, I would have retired 15 years ago,” he said. “I would have been long gone. But every day I get gratification from coming to work.”
When Davis does retire, someone else will take up his mantle. And hopefully, they’ll keep the same sense of honor in purpose.
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