Georgia Humanities is an independent nonprofit organization and one of the fifty-six organizations authorized by the U.S. Congress as affiliates of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). In a spirit of collaboration, Georgia Humanities gathers, preserves, and shares the state’s distinctive stories through a range of cultural and educational programs and resources. To this end it funds, sponsors, and conducts programs that bring Georgians together to explore and discuss history, literature, philosophy, and other cultural traditions. The organization’s core belief is that the humanities educate the head and the heart.
Governed by a statewide board of civic, educational, and business leaders, Georgia Humanities is headquartered in Atlanta.
Committee for the Humanities in Georgia
Georgia Humanities began in 1971 as one of the six trial state-based programs established by the NEH. Originally known as the Committee for the Humanities in Georgia, it comprised five representatives of higher education organizations in the state. Richard Wiegand, the director of continuing education at the Georgia Institute of Technology, was the first chairman.
The committee made its first home at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education on the University of Georgia campus in Athens, which provided administrative support. The committee’s sole activity was to distribute grants for projects that explored the humanities in relation to public policy, and its initial efforts established the policies and procedures for grantmaking as well as for communicating the availability of funding to various humanities networks. J. Foster Harwell was the first full-time administrator, with the title of Secretary to the Committee (1972). He was succeeded in 1974 by J. Preston Prather, who served until 1979.
During its first decade the committee organized its grantmaking around broad themes, including “Quality of Life” and “Georgia in Transition: Race, Liberty, and Land Use.” The committee eventually expanded its board membership to include representatives of the general public; it also expanded grantmaking beyond colleges and universities.
In 1978 the committee formally incorporated in the state of Georgia and received its Internal Revenue Service determination as a 501(c)(3) organization. In 1980 the committee moved its headquarters to the campus of Emory University in Atlanta. Anne Russell Mayeaux served as the assistant director during the last half of 1979 and as the acting executive director for the first few months of 1980.
Georgia Endowment for the Humanities
In 1980 Congress modified the authorizing legislation of the NEH and removed the “humanities and public policy” stricture on council grantmaking. The effect of this legal change was to better align state and NEH program guidelines. As part of this alignment, the committee changed its name to the Georgia Endowment for the Humanities (GEH).
In 1980 Ronald E. Benson became the executive director. Under its new broader funding mandate, the GEH revised its grant guidelines. It also inaugurated council-led activities, such as teacher workshops and publishing projects.
In 1982 the GEH established and housed the Georgia Humanities Resource Center at the Georgia Southern College Library (later Georgia Southern University Library) in Statesboro. This center allowed for the lending of films, exhibits, and other instructional materials, many of which were products of previous GEH grants. The resource center remained in Statesboro until 1990, when it moved to the GEH offices in Atlanta, and closed in 1997, when the GEH ceased its funding of media production grants.
In 1986 the GEH received its first appropriation from the state of Georgia through a contract with the Georgia Council for the Arts and Humanities (later Georgia Council for the Arts). That same year Governor Joe Frank Harris presented the first Governor’s Awards in the Humanities.
Georgia Humanities Council
In keeping with the language used in the congressional authorizing legislation, the GEH changed its name to the Georgia Humanities Council in 1989. By then the council was becoming well known in the state, and its board size had grown to more than twenty directors, permitting it to represent better the state’s geographic and educational communities.
In 1994 the council assumed sponsorship for National History Day in Georgia, a history program for students in the sixth through the twelfth grades. The council provided resource materials to teachers and students and then collaborated with local organizations to host regional contests as well as a statewide contest. Georgia Humanities later provided support for other history education activities through both the grant program and a partnership with the U.S. Department of Education’s “Teaching American History” grant initiative. During this period the council relocated its offices to the historic Hurt Building in downtown Atlanta.
The year 1996 was important for Georgia Humanities, as it organized and managed two major projects in conjunction with the Atlanta-based Olympic Games. First, the council partnered with the Cultural Olympiad to recognize and honor local humanities initiatives that had occurred during that year. Second, it prepared The New Georgia Guide for publication by the University of Georgia Press. The Guide, an acclaimed cultural and historical handbook for Georgia’s communities and regions, was an innovative precedent for the organization.
That same year the council organized and sponsored, in collaboration with the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a statewide conference on character education. The conference, together with a legislative mandate for the teaching of character education, led to other council initiatives. Among these was the creation of the Georgia Center for Character Education (1999-2002), jointly sponsored with the Georgia Department of Education and the Georgia Power Foundation.
In 1997 Jamil S. Zainaldin assumed the presidency of the council. The organization’s strategic plan from 1999 to 2003 focused on fund development, expansion of partnerships, civic engagement, and closer collaboration with entities of state government. Four signature areas emerged in the new plan: National History Day in Georgia, the Georgia Center for Character Education, the New Georgia Encyclopedia, and the Humanities Leadership Forum.
After two decades at the organization, Zainaldin retired in 2018 and was succeeded as president by Laura McCarty. The council’s grant program remains a highlight of its work, as does the annual Governor’s Awards ceremony. The organization’s longtime partnership with the University of Georgia Press has resulted in several publications, including Historic Rural Churches of Georgia (2016), A President in Our Midst: Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Georgia (2016), and Memories of the Mansion: The Story of Georgia’s Governor’s Mansion (2015).
Georgia Humanities continues to foster opportunities for people to come together in learning and discussion. More than a passive provider of grant funds, the council serves as a convener of the humanities community, linking educators with museums, historical societies, and other community groups.