Date worth remembering for Ga.’s history

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. 

On June 28, 1997, in the reading room of Hodgson Hall in Savannah, 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 Gov. Zell Miller and the Georgia legislature. 

After 30 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. 

The privatization came at a time when Gov. Miller was looking for opportunities to streamline state government by shifting functions to the private sector. Under the GHS arrangement, state funding would gradually decline over five years to 50 percent of its FY 1996 level. In exchange, GHS would regain operational control over the institution and thereby provide a better service for the people of Georgia. 

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 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 20 years, GHS annual revenue has grown from $500,000 to over $3 million. The GHS campus has doubled in size, as has our membership. 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: U.S. 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, Sea Island, and Southern Co. 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. 

But the work is not yet finished. The final phase of the privatization is building a $20 million endowment to permanently replace the lost state funding and provide a springboard for future growth. To date, we have nearly $15 million of that goal. 

The private-public partnership forged in 1997 fulfilled the ambition of its architects. The state of Georgia has saved the taxpayers millions of dollars. GHS has grown and flourished, becoming one of the nation's most robust and influential historical societies. 

Most important of all, tens of thousands of researchers, teachers, and students now 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 — all because of what happened on June 28, 1997 — a date truly worth remembering.

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

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