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Georgia Historical Society
Founded in 1839, the Georgia Historical Society is the oldest continuously operating state historical society in the South and one of the oldest historical organizations in the nation. The institution is dedicated to collecting, examining, and teaching Georgia history. Headquartered in Savannah, the colonial capital of Georgia, the society continues to bear the seal of the Georgia colony's Trustees, along with their philanthropic motto: Non sibi sed aliis, meaning "Not for self, but for others."
Origins and Leadership
The three founders soon succeeded in attracting to their cause an impressive group of tidewater "aristocrats" and businessmen. They also framed a constitution calling for a governing structure that continues, in general, to be followed today, with a president and other officers assisted by a governing board, whose members are known as curators. From around 100 active members in 1839, the society had grown to some 6,000 by the beginning of the twenty-first century.
From its inception the society profited from inspiring, dynamic leadership. Among the most effective of the organization's nineteenth-century presidents were its first two, John Macpherson Berrien (a lawyer, U.S. senator, and U.S. attorney general) and James Moore Wayne (a lawyer, U.S. congressman, and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court). One or the other served as president between 1839 and 1862. Henry Rootes Jackson (a lawyer, jurist, diplomat, and Confederate general) held the presidency from 1875 to 1898.
The society hired its first professional historian, W. Todd Groce, as executive director in 1995. In 2006 the society changed its bylaws so that the volunteer head of the institution became chairman of the board, and Groce was elected the organization's forty-third president.
Collections and Library
Preservation of the society's collections remains a central focus. From 1839 to 1849 the organization shared a repository with the Savannah Library Society, to whose collections and furniture the society was heir. This marked the first of many partnerships that would be vital to the society's survival.
In 1849 the society moved into its own hall, a neo-Gothic structure designed by John Norris and located on East Bryan Street, just off Reynolds Square. In 1871 the society relocated to Armory Hall on Wright Square, and in 1875 the society finally moved to its present headquarters, Hodgson Hall, at the northwest corner of Forsyth Park. Erected in memory of the prominent society member and savant William Brown Hodgson, the impressive structure serves as a representation of the society to most of its members. Not surprisingly, the society's expanding collections and membership have necessitated periodic renovations, improvements, and additions to the original structure. These include the Abrahams Annex in 1970 and the Jepson Education Center in 2011.
The Georgia Historical Society, like other similar organizations, has experienced chronic funding challenges throughout its life, but the adoption of a modest agenda and the benefit of various timely partnerships have contributed to its survival. Among the society's partners who have assisted with various expenses are the Savannah Public Library, Armstrong College (later Armstrong Atlantic State University), and most notably, the Georgia Archives.
From 1966 until 1997 the society's library served as a branch depository of the Georgia Archives, resulting in considerable funding assistance. In 1997 this relationship was transformed with the privatization of the library, which set in motion the largest expansion in the institution's history and laid the foundation for its financial stability and security. Though the library's depository status continues, public funding was almost entirely phased out, and today the society operates independently of the state, relying almost entirely on private support. From 1997 to 2011 the operating budget grew from $250,000 to more than $2.5 million. During that same period the GHS endowment, established in 1971 and administered by a permanent board called the Georgia Historical Society Endowment Trust, grew from $1 million to $7 million.
Publications and Broadcasts
In 1917 the society began publishing the Georgia Historical Quarterly, which features scholarly articles and book reviews. An index to the Quarterly (1917-76) was published in 1991, and the journal received a Governor's Award in the Humanities in 1999. Though the Quarterly originally contained
By the 1990s the society also boasted a Web site offering information on publications, outreach, and events. During that same period a more traditional brand of dissemination, the historical lecture, was revived and presented to audiences beyond Savannah by society representatives, recalling a form of outreach that had been initiated by William Bacon Stevens in the 1840s.
In 2011 the society, in collaboration with Georgia Public Broadcasting, launched Today in Georgia History, an educational series of short radio and television programs. Each segment focuses on the historical events or people associated with a particular day in Georgia history. An interactive Web site, featuring archived programs, transcripts, and educational resources, accompanies the series.
The Georgia Historical Society administers a number of programs designed to educate the public and provide meaningful ways for Georgia's citizens and visitors to engage with the state's history.
The society developed the Affiliate Chapter Program in 1996 to create a network of local historical organizations within the state and provide them with various resources, including workshops on preservation, technical advice, and publicity opportunities. The society also presents awards for outstanding achievement to affiliate chapters, which in 2011 included nearly 200 nonprofit historical societies, museums, archives, and other organizations throughout Georgia.
During the induction ceremony, held each February in Savannah, new trustees receive a bronze replica of the 1733 seal of the Trustees. One side of the medallion features a silkworm, mulberry leaf, and cocoon (representing early hopes that Georgia would be a successful silk-making colony), along with the Latin motto Non sibi sed aliis. A scene depicting three figures appears on the reverse, along with the Latin phrase Colonia Georgia Aug, meaning "May the colony of Georgia prosper." The figures to the left and right of the scene represent the Savannah and Altamaha rivers. The middle figure represents the genius of the colony; wearing a cap of liberty and holding a spear, she sits beside a cornucopia.
William Harris Bragg, De Renne: Three Generations of a Georgia Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999).
Albert S. Britt Jr., Overture to the Future at the Georgia Historical Society (Savannah: Georgia Historical Society, 1974).
W. Todd Groce, "Hodgson Hall at One Hundred and Twenty-five," Georgia Historical Quarterly 87 (spring 2003): 88-119.
Phinizy Spalding, "Treasure House for Georgia's Past," Atlanta Journal and Constitution Maga zine, May 6, 1973.
William Harris Bragg, Georgia College and State University
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.