Saving the Stories of the Past

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

Recently on eBay—that addictive web site for collectors of anything—I came across an extraordinary collection whose fate illustrates the challenges we face when it comes to saving the stories of the past.

This collection consisted of uniforms, letters, photographs, official documents, medals, even a footlocker belonging to a WWII US Marine Corps officer from New York who fought in some of the great battles of the Pacific campaign. In all there were over 100 items documenting in detail the service and sacrifices of a true American hero. The collection had been acquired by a dealer at an estate sale after the Marine died last year. It went for a hefty price as a group. Over the course of the next few weeks I watched in horror as each item was re-sold individually. The collection that had been carefully preserved with pride by an old man was forsaken by his family, broken up and scattered to the wind—and with it the story of a warrior and the contribution he made to the pivotal event of the 20th century.

Sadly, this is not an isolated instance. Every day someone who either does not care or only sees a monetary value disposes of their family history and another piece of America’s story is lost forever.

In this issue of Georgia History Today you will encounter many stories from the past all available to us today because someone took the time to place the objects and documents from which these stories are derived in a repository like the Georgia Historical Society.

And thank goodness they did. The ability of future generations to learn from the past is dependent upon the physical evidence we leave behind. It is the foundation upon which all future historical scholarship and knowledge of the past will be based.

I have often thought that it isn’t the person who does great deeds that is remembered but the one who leaves behind the best records. Otherwise how will anyone know?

It’s not just the documentary legacy of the rich and famous that needs to be preserved. The story of every family forms the fabric of our state’s and nation’s history. Each document and object is another thread in the tapestry.

Nothing is too small to be inconsequential. Whether it’s a diary kept by a 19th century farmer, a letter written by a wife to her husband in the Army, a ledger book from a small retail business, or a photo taken during a 1960s Civil Rights demonstration, each adds to our understanding. Donating it ensures that the story of the event and the person connected to it survives as instruction and inspiration for the future.

Longer than any institution in the South—175 years—the Georgia Historical Society has been here continuously to provide a good home for your history. So if you have family letters or personal effects, please call us. As the stories in this magazine demonstrate, the future will be richer because you did.

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