A Date worth Remembering

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

Twenty years ago this summer the Georgia Historical Society regained control over its destiny and fundamentally changed how GHS fulfilled its mission and how history is taught and understood in this state.

In the reading room of Hodgson Hall on June 28, 1997, Secretary of State Lewis Massey and GHS President Lisa White signed an agreement privatizing the Georgia Historical Society’s Research Center. The privatization was a voluntary one, negotiated by Massey and his successor, Cathy Cox, and approved by Governor Zell Miller and the Georgia legislature.

After thirty years of state control, GHS once again had direct operational oversight of its most important asset and the cornerstone of its educational and research mission—the 4 million documents, records, photographs, rare books, artifacts, architectural drawings and maps that make up the oldest collection of Georgia history materials in the nation.

Some worried that privatization would have dire consequences. Maintaining the current arrangement with the state seemed the safest route, as launching out on our own meant a dramatic decrease in government funding. It meant raising enormous sums of money from private sources and being accountable once again for the fate of the institution and its mission.

As it turned out, the naysayers need not have worried. No event in the institution’s 178 years of continuous operation has had such a salutary effect on its direction, growth, and financial well-being.

Over the past twenty years, GHS annual revenue has grown from $500,000 to over $3 million. The GHS campus has doubled in size, as has our membership. The endowment has grown from $1 million to nearly $9 million in cash and an additional $5.5 million in pledges and bequests. Net assets have increased from $2 million to over $17 million. Annual usage of the collection has increased sixfold, from about 10,000 researchers in 1997 to over 60,000 today.

The backlog of unprocessed collections in 1997—approximately half of the entire collection—has been eliminated, making history accessible to the public. We have acquired the papers of some of Georgia’s most distinguished leaders: US Attorney General Griffin Bell, legendary UGA Head Football Coach Vince Dooley, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, and carpet manufacturing giant and sustainability pioneer Ray C. Anderson. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Research Alliance have placed their records with us, as have corporations such as Great Dane and Southern Company Gas. Thousands of individuals and families have entrusted us with their documentary legacy.

In 1997 GHS also worked out a deal for the privatization of the state’s historical marker program and accepted the direction of what is now called the Georgia History Festival. Today these programs, along with the Research Center and the Georgia Historical Quarterly, form the foundation of our educational and research mission. Privatization of our Research Center made us strong enough to take on these additional responsibilities while allowing GHS to interpret and teach history in ways that were impossible under the old arrangement.

The private-public partnership forged in 1997 unleashed the potential in GHS, allowing us to become one of the nation’s most robust and influential state historical societies. Today tens of thousands of researchers, students, and teachers receive the assistance they need to effectively teach and interpret our state’s history. Through the power of history, they are building a better future for the people of Georgia, and will for many years to come.

But the work is not yet finished. The final phase of the privatization is building an endowment to permanently replace the state funding and provide a springboard for future growth. I hope you will join us in this endeavor so that twenty years from now in 2037, we can look back and say that June 28, 1997, is truly a date worth remembering.

W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.
W. Todd Groce, Ph.D., is President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society.