The Georgia Historical Commission was the earliest statewide force for historic preservation in Georgia; the advent of the commission was the first time state government, rather than a private organization, became involved in historic preservation. Much of the work accomplished during its relatively brief existence—including the erection of hundreds of historical markers—survives today. The commission was created by the Georgia legislature in February 1951 to promote and increase knowledge and understanding of the history of the state.
The impetus for the creation of the commission came from several sources. Local historical societies were launching restoration projects of statewide importance. These projects often needed not only financial and technical help but also a way to coordinate plans with other state projects. Three Atlanta civic leaders lobbied for a state historical commission: Henry A. Alexander, an attorney who was appointed chairman of the first board of commissioners; Joseph Jacobs, a pharmacist; and Frank Boland, a physician who wanted a memorial for Crawford W. Long, a Georgian who was the first person to use ether as an anesthetic. Secretary of State Ben Fortson thought the project should be placed with his department, which already handled the state archives. Governor Herman Talmadge, after years of stormy political battles, was eager to support an initiative with wide appeal.
The commission began its life inauspiciously: because the act that created it forbade state funding, it had no budget. In 1952, however, this roadblock was lifted, and the Georgia Historical Commission emerged as a significant state agency. C. E. Gregory, a retired political editor of the Atlanta Journal, had been influential in the campaign to establish the commission and became its first executive secretary. He was succeeded in 1960 by his daughter, Mary Gregory Jewett, who had been the commission’s staff historian. Eventually the commission had a staff of fifty and a nine-person board headed for fifteen years by Joseph B. Cumming. Such specialists as the architectural historian William R. Mitchell Jr. and the archaeologist Lewis H. Larson Jr. advised the board over the years.
The Georgia Historical Commission gained national recognition as a pioneer in state historic preservation. The most impressive of its major achievements was the acquiring, restoring, excavating, and developing of twenty historic sites, fifteen of them staffed and seven with museums. The commission’s other major work was erecting some 1,800 historical markers. In 1962 the approaching Civil War centennial inspired the commission to have 750 Civil War markers in place before the observance in 1965. After 1966 the commission served as the state’s review board for the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1973 Governor Jimmy Carter’s governmental reorganization abolished the twenty-two-year-old commission. The dissolution of the successful agency caused controversy and even bitterness, but much of the commission’s work has remained firmly in place. The Department of Natural Resources assumed its functions and maintains most of the sites and museums, and the Georgia Historical Society took over the marker program. Responsibility for maintaining several sites now belongs to local groups.