National Museum Day puts the Spotlight on The Salvation Army’s Preservation Efforts
As spring begins to feel a bit like summer and people plan their vacations, the nation celebrates National Museum day on May 18. The Historical Center for The Salvation Army’s Southern Territory – comprising 15 Southern states and the District of Columbia – is a gem of a museum ready to accommodate any traveler with a desire to learn more about The Salvation Army’s fascinating history in the Southern United States.
“The Historical Center is located at the Evangeline Booth College, which is the officer training college which is primarily for the Southern Territory and we are here in Atlanta. Our mission is to collect and describe, preserve and interpret physical objects or artifacts or archives that deal with the history of The Salvation Army. So, we have an educational mission and a historical preservation mission. We have on our site a museum and an archive research facility for individuals to contact us for access to information or documents. They can also come here to visit the museum and the other exhibits or they can do research here themselves when we have regular
visiting hours,” Michael Nagy, Director and Archivist of The Historical Center, said.
For history buffs from Kentucky, the museum has intriguing information featuring the Kentucky Mountain Brigade – a group of brave individuals who helped The Salvation Army understand how to adapt their mission to rural settings.
“One of the things we talk about in our museum narrative is the adaptation and change that The Salvation Army had to undergo when it came to this part of the country. It developed in England and was very urban and had sort of grown up in cities and towns around the urban poor but when it came to the southern United States, there were a few cities but they were rather small. And so it had to adapt itself to rural conditions and one of those very early attempts to do that was something they called the Kentucky Mountain Brigade. We have some photographs and articles related to that and what that was right after the turn of the century, early 1900’s, Nagy said.
The efforts of those ministers led to many innovations in caring for those in need.
“There was terrible violence in the Kentucky mountains they called ‘the feuding families.’ News about this had reached the eastern newspapers about these feuds that had been longstanding and ongoing. The Salvation Army felt like they wanted to do something and go to those places so they sent out these men who basically went out on horseback into these rural areas to minister and have meetings with the families. They found some success but they didn’t always have a permanent remedy but it sort of paved the way and they learned how to reach rural communities, which was something they didn’t really know how to do at that time. Some of the early leaders of the Army said we should go there – it’s sort of the same idea we have now with disaster services. Let’s figure out what we can do and it was a precursor to the famous donut girls of WWI where they see a war – 10 to 15 years later – and decided, okay, here’s a situation where no one would walk in there, so let’s go there,” Nagy said.
Another interesting Kentucky-themed archive features the historical importance of The Salvation Army’s maternity homes.
“We have records of pretty much any current and former institution or unit or corps. One of those types of places that we have records of is The Salvation Army maternity homes starting all the way back to the late 1800’s through to the late 1980’s, early 1990’s. One of the largest of those maternity homes was in Louisville. We don’t have the adoption records or the case files but we do have historical records about what they did. That whole mode of service for unwed mothers that doesn’t really exist anymore,” Nagy said.
For visitors with an interest in Tennessee history, the Southern Historical Center has a vast amount of information about Brigadier Gertrude Purdue.
“In our history, she was most known for her service in Memphis. There is a Purdue Center of Hope there in Memphis and she was very well known for being a community leader along with her husband, William Purdue. She was instrumental in getting together some of the church and civic organizations to work on community reconciliation type issues after the assignation of the Reverend Martin Luther King in Memphis. In addition she continued in her retirement to stay there and was very, very active in the shelters and feeding programs and other things,” Nagy said.
Brigadier Gertrude Purdue was also instrumental in another ministry that many people are unaware is tied to The Salvation Army – the United Service Organization (USO), a nonprofit group that provides live entertainment, such as comedians and musicians, and other programs to members of the United States Armed Forces and their families.
“Previous to that time of coming to Memphis, Brigadier Purdue was one of the people in the USO program. A lot of people don’t know that The Salvation Army was instrument al in being one of the lead organizers of the USO. The USO is now a separate nonprofit from The Salvation Army but when it was created it was sort of a co-op and The Salvation Army lent personnel and facilities and all types of things to the USO throughout World War II all the way up to the Vietnam War. So she was active in that ministry as well. Her legacy in Tennessee is huge and we have some of her papers and documents and things about Memphis that are specific to her,” Nagy said.
As a museum, the staff at the Southern Historical Center stands ready for any historical challenge that may come their way but Nagy has come be able to anticipate many requests.
“Probably the most typical types of requests we get from people are either for information about individuals who were in The Salvation Army or about their local Salvation Army in their city. Usually that would be the Corps there but there may be other things in the city that The Salvation Army does. We are definitely one of the resources that I would suggest people contact because we have access to files that we keep on each local unit of The Salvation Army – things that are accumulated over the years, programs and newsletters and clippings of newspapers and, of course, ‘The War Cry’ – The Salvation Army’s publication that is much like The Southern Spirit is now. ‘The War Cry’ in the early days of this territory from the 1920’s to the 60’s was actually published in separate editions for each of the territories so they had a lot more local type information than you find in the territorial papers now,” Nagy said.
Researching locally can also reap valuable information.
“We’ve got a lot of resources but I would also encourage them to seek out other resources locally because often times local historical societies or public libraries and such have newspaper coverage which The Salvation Army has always been eager to get coverage in. So there may be information in those collections,” Nagy said.
If an individual, family or Corps has information they would like to submit to the Southern Historical Center, the director of the facility is eager to communicate with them.
“We do not have an official means to get those types of materials, which are often called ephemera. For historical purposes they were created for an event or a one-time thing where the people would read it and get rid of it quickly. We want to keep them for a long time so we always encourage people to send us things as they happen or set things aside and periodically send them to us and many often do. We try to let the cadets know that because they are going to be commissioned as Salvation Army officers. We impart to them that we want to know about what they are doing in their local activities once they leave here so whenever they become leaders of the local unit or what have you, then we encourage them to send things back to us,” Nagy said.
Sometimes a lack of information can be frustrating but the Southern Historical Center has a future remedy for that problem.
“In The Salvation Army history class they have here, they have a project that involves them using the local Corps archives that we have here to see. Some of the students often times become frustrated by the lack of information. I always use this as an opportunity to say ‘Well look. See this is what happens when we don’t get a lot from a place. We would encourage you to build these up as you go on and let other people know what was going on at the time you were there,’” Nagy said.
Michael Nagy has a lot of history himself with the Southern Historical Center.
“I have been here for 21 years as of May 19th. I’ve been the director since 2005. Prior to that time, they had officers here as director of the historical center but they transitioned it to an employee position. I’ve been the director for 13 years. I’ve done a lot of things here. I started out to being the person to get the collections in order. They had done a lot of gathering of things and exhibits and they were building the museum but in the background they had gathered a large volume of materials that were not well organized. So, that was the original reason I was hired but then over time, I transitioned to various positions,” Nagy said.
The history of The Salvation Army is a passion for the Director and he wants readers to understand how they are a part of it.
“When people think of The Salvation Army history, often they think of William Booth. They think of London or they think of New York and the origin of the Christmas Kettles but really, the history of The Salvation Army is everything that you just did. The things that happened a day ago or a week ago, those activities that people are putting on, what’s going on at the local levels with shelters, the rehab programs, the disaster work, all of that documentation that we want to someday see that are things that are of importance to save and preserve and are important to collect and share for later. I always say that history was yesterday but it is also today. So that’s what I would want people to know, that what they are doing in The Salvation Army is history,” Nagy said.
If you are interested in visiting the Southern Historical Center, located at 1032 Metropolitan Parkway, SW, Atlanta, GA 30310, call 404-752-7578 or email Historical_Center@USS.SalvationArmy.org or Michael.Nagy@uss.salvationarmy.org. It is typically open for tours and research when the Evangeline Booth College campus is open: 9 to 12 and 1 to 4, Monday through Friday. The staff is very small, so it is advisable to contact them before your visit to ensure you can be accommodated.
In addition to the physical facility, The Historical Center has a website for the public to search records and to obtain a variety of information – http://salvationarmy.pastperfectonline.com/. The “Random Images” button provides an easy way to browse the collection. Each “Random Images” page displays images from the records online. If an image catches your interest, simply click the thumbnail to view a larger version of the image and read information about it.
For an in-depth look at the Southern Historical Center, read Michael Nagy’s article at https://saa2016atl.wordpress.com/2016/07/09/salvation-army-southern-historical-center/.