Georgia Historical Society (GHS) was founded in 1839 with a mission to preserve, examine, and teach Georgia history and American history through education and research. Nearly 200 years later, it is as committed as ever to those goals. With offices in Savannah and Atlanta, GHS provides research resources to everyone from educators to entrepreneurs and maintains the state’s historical marker program, the annual Georgia History Festival, hands-on educational outreach programs, the Vincent J. Dooley Distinguished Fellows Program, and a statewide lecture series. The business community recognizes the importance of GHS’s mission: Its board is stacked with top talent from companies including The Home Depot, Georgia Power, AT&T, Chick-fil-A, Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., and Synovus. Here, we chat with President W. Todd Groce about why GHS is so important to the fabric of Georgia.
Why is the work of the Georgia Historical Society so vital to the state’s culture? Who does GHS serve?
When most people hear the word history, they think about the past. But in a broader sense, history is really about the future. We study the past because doing so explains how the world around us was created. The better we understand how we got to this point, the better decisions we can make going forward. The quality of the future we create is directly tied to how well we understand how we got here. As I heard someone once say, “How can the future be what it ought to be if we don’t tell the past like it really was?” So, it behooves everyone to understand how we got to this point in our national development. In that sense, we serve all 10 million people in this state, all of whom care about the future and the world they will bequeath to their children. But specifically, our work most directly impacts Georgia’s students of all ages, K-12 educators, academics at research universities, leaders in business and government, and researchers including journalists, scholars, genealogists, and filmmakers.
Your Board of Curators draws from the top echelons of Georgia executives. Why do you think the appointment to this GHS board is so coveted?
One of the main reasons why we have such a strong board is because history matters. The people who serve on our board care about this state, and they see history as playing a vital role in the process of making the world a better place. Because they understand its importance, they are passionate about helping us think strategically and finding the resources we need to fulfill our educational and research mission. This board believes in the work we do. We are Georgia’s only statewide historical institution, and they recognize our broad impact across the state and beyond. Leaders like to make a difference and they like to serve with other leaders, and they get that by being a part of the GHS Board of Curators.
You recently dedicated some new historical markers for Civil Rights leaders, Augusta’s Chinese community, and WWII efforts in Savannah, among others. Why are such commemorations important?
Historical markers are a long-standing educational resource but there are far more stories about Georgia and its past than have been traditionally told using this medium. Telling the full and honest story about our past is crucial to the success of our local communities, our state, and our nation. Acknowledging the richness of our past helps us gain a far greater understanding of how complex the past actually was. Social, economic, and cultural stories are just as important as our military and political history, topics that have traditionally dominated the content of historical markers. We are expanding the history being shared because the story of Georgia and its people is broader and more interesting than previously represented. When we see ourselves in these stories and connect with them, the past is more relevant to the lives we lead now than we ever imagined.
How does GHS support education in the state? What are some of the initiatives you’re most excited about?
Education is core to the mission of GHS. We are committed to preparing the people of this state, especially the next generation, to meet the challenges of the future. As an educational and research institution, we serve as the bridge between the academic community and the public, taking the research out of the universities and making it accessible through a variety of educational programs and initiatives. Each year, GHS organizes and presents the Georgia History Festival, our signature K-12 education program that reaches approximately 250,000 students statewide. We train teachers in how to use primary sources in the classroom to help students understand sensitive and challenging topics, hone their analytical thinking skills, and promote a respect for evidence. The Georgia Historical Marker Program tells the story of our state by marking sites where history happened. Our Georgia Business History Initiative teaches students and the public about the pivotal role that businesses have played in the social, economic, and political development of our state and nation. And our History and Race Initiative is helping the public better understand how race has been central to our story as Southerners, both black and white, and shaped our common destiny.
History can be a controversial topic. What role does GHS play in that discussion?
First, it is important to realize that history is not a divisive concept. When it is taught correctly, by which I mean honestly, fully, and based on the documentary evidence available to us, it can heal and unify. Learning and acknowledging the full and honest story of America helps us to grow in our understanding of liberty, justice, freedom, and the other ideals we share as Americans. Exploring our nation’s past in all its glory, messiness, and complexity should give us a sense of common identity, purpose, and destiny.
GHS is committed to helping the public and our leaders gain new perspective and context by taking an honest, unblinking look at the past, whether it’s Confederate monuments, race relations, economic development, the environment, or the future of democracy. We are here to make sure the debate is an informed one. But while we are advocates for good history, we are not advocates for political action. That is not our mission. Understanding the limits of our role has helped us to earn a reputation as an honest broker when it comes to the story of the past. Our only agenda is for you to know and understand history that is based on solid research and scholarship.
Tell us about the research that GHS makes possible and why it’s important.
Like education, research is also core to our mission. For nearly two centuries GHS has been collecting, preserving, and making accessible records that historians use to construct the story of the past and thereby explain the present. Our collection is home to over 5 million manuscripts, newspapers, artifacts, photographs, rare books, maps, and other primary source evidence that document the story of Georgia’s journey, from its creation to the 21st century. You might think that only students and teachers use these materials, but the GHS collection is used by people far beyond the limits of Georgia and for every reason imaginable. They include scholars from every major research university in the country, and also journalists, government officials, documentary filmmakers, attorneys, chefs, authors, novelists, and poets, to name a few. We also publish research through the Georgia Historical Quarterly, which is our scholarly journal of record. Scholars present their research to a wide audience, changing how we see the past—and giving more context and focus to the present.