The Southern Labor Archives is committed to “collecting, preserving and making available the documentary heritage of Southern workers and their unions, as well as that of workers and unions having an historic relationship to the region.”
Holdings are particularly strong in the areas of aviation, machinery, and aerospace; the textile and garment industry; building trades; the nursing profession; the communications industry; government, office, and retail workers; furniture and wood industries; and union activities in the Southeast. The largest accumulation of labor records in the Southeast, the Archives includes materials dating from 1884 to the present and comprises union records, the personal papers of individuals, photographs, artifacts, periodicals, film and sound recordings, and oral history interviews.
Founding and Early Years
Georgia State University (GSU) history professor Merl E. Reed realized the need for a labor archives in Atlanta when he learned about the Texas Labor Archives, housed at the University of Texas at Arlington. Reed collaborated with leaders in the local labor community, who in 1969 planned a dinner to honor the labor attorney Joseph Jacobs, with the proceeds earmarked for founding the Archives. Approximately 600 people attended, and the event raised $3,750 for the future Archives.
On April 28, 1970, GSU representatives, including Reed, history professor Gary Fink, and library administrators, along with local labor union representatives signed a memorandum of understanding establishing the Southern Labor Archives. The labor community pledged continuing financial support, and the university agreed to house and administer regional labor records at the library. In July 1971 David B. Gracy II, an archivist from Texas, became the first director of the Southern Labor Archives. The archives’ first significant collection, one box of material from William T. Clitheroe, a retired member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), arrived on July 15, 1971.
Growing the Collections
Upon Gracy’s departure in 1976, Leslie S. Hough was hired as the Archives’ second director. Under his guidance, the collections continued to grow as did the Archives’ national reputation. Collections of note that came in under Hough’s administration include the records of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), the papers of former U.S. secretary of labor W. J. Usery Jr., the records of the United Garment Workers of America, and the papers of Stetson Kennedy, a renowned investigative reporter and labor activist. In 1992 the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers made the Southern Labor Archives its official repository.
Hough left the Archives in 1992. After his departure the duties of the director were gradually assumed by the archivist for the collection. By 2015 the Archives housed more than 500 collections covering work and workers across the Southeast and the nation.
In addition to its papers and records collections, the Archives also collects oral history interviews with leaders of the labor movement, workers, and representatives from associated communities. Stories are recorded through interviews that are autobiographical in nature and cover the subjects’ personal backgrounds, work histories, and participation in the labor movement or their chosen professions.
In 2010 Georgia State University Library began a digitization program that provides online access to its collections. Selections from the Southern Labor Archives include the underground newspaper Great Speckled Bird, the records of PATCO, the Eastern Air Lines Digital Collection, and photographs and manuscripts documenting unions, work, and workers from across the Southeast.