W. Todd Groce stands beneath the 36-foot high ceilings of Hodgson Hall’s Reading Room, glowing with mid-January sunshine streaming through arched windows and new lighting illuminating the culmination of a 5-year restoration million dollars over three years and the effort to expand the Georgia Historical Society complex at the corner of Whitaker and Gaston streets.
“Anyone can come visit the Georgia Historical Society,” says Groce, president and CEO of GHS, “only you have one question to ask. A question about the past. How did we get there ? Because that’s what history does. It helps us understand the present and gives us context for the present, so we can make better decisions in the future.
He is obviously delighted to reintroduce the GHS Research Center not only to the 60,000 historians, scholars, documentarians, researchers, students and journalists who visit it each year, but also – and perhaps even more so – to the many Savannahians who are not perhaps not so aware of the preserved treasures. here.
As Groce says, sometimes “a prophet is not honored in his own country. You don’t realize what is happening here and the national impact.
This impact encompasses people from every county in Georgia, 43 different states and 11 countries: scholars who have written best-selling biographies, genealogists who have solved the missing piece of a family mystery, architects who have restored houses and filmmakers who’ve produced work for the BBC, Discovery and the Smithsonian.
“The city is known as a center of historical research because of what happened here and the nature of this collection, and I think most people in the city just don’t know that.”
A SHORT HISTORY
This gracious space was first dedicated as a repository of Georgia’s precolonial and revolutionary history in 1876, a time when Savannah, not Atlanta, was the most culturally and economically relevant city in the state. The property was a gift from Mary Telfair and her sister Margaret Telfair Hodgson to commemorate her late husband William B. Hodgson, a Middle Eastern scholar and American diplomat, who died five years earlier.
A portrait of Hodgson, painted by German-born artist Carl Ludwig Brandt, oversees the three-story reading room from across the library, as it has for 145 years. It has also been restored along with the building, revealing details unseen in modern times, such as the intricate fabric pattern on the chair, the glasses he holds in his hand, and the Arabic writing on the paper. The look on his face seems both honored and impressed by this heritage.
The $5 million restoration of historic Hodgson Hall and the expansion of the 1970s Abrahams Annex are the most visible results of a 10-year, $23 million fundraising campaign launched in 2008 after years of growing concern from GHS staff about space to viably store the burgeoning collection, which had been growing passively for decades. Groce says the decision to actively seek out Georgia’s collections of living legends so they won’t be lost forever has made the campaign all the more urgent.
In 2014, the acquisition and renovation of the Jepson House Education Center, across Gaston Street, north of the research center, was completed. This move created an expanded office and workspace for GHS staff, freeing up space in Hodgson Hall and the Abrahams Annex so that the renovation of these spaces could move forward.
In 2019, GHS closed the research center for what was planned as a year-long construction and renovation project. But then the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues extended that period to three years. The wait, however, was worth it.
Fire suppression, security and environmental systems have all been upgraded to protect valuable artifacts and facilities. The archives’ storage capacity has doubled to accommodate “more than 5 million manuscripts, 100,000 photographs, 30,000 architectural drawings, 15,000 rare and non-rare books and thousands of maps, portraits and artifacts depicting the history of Georgia”. A new treasure chest contains the most prized possessions, such as an original draft copy of the US Constitution, one of only 13 known to exist.
Expanded and modernized processing rooms allow archivists to appraise and catalog incoming materials, and an improved collections management system gives researchers better access to archived materials in person and online. There is also a kitty to buy important collections.
Two collections grew out of this initial push in 2008 to acquire the papers of living legends: the papers of Griffin Bell, an American native who served as United States Attorney General from 1977 to 1979 during the Jimmy Carter, and the papers of Vince Dooley, the revered University of Georgia championship football coach for 40 years – and a master historian.
After a two-year stint in the United States Marine Corps, Dooley was hired as an assistant football coach in 1956 at his alma mater, Auburn University. During the offseason, he is pursuing a master’s degree. Although he studied business as an undergraduate, he says he always preferred history classes.
“It was a long way to go,” says Dooley, now 89, “but the best advice I ever got was that if it’s what you really like, you’re more likely to get it.” to get a master’s degree in history is something where you have to force yourself to study.
He wrote books on southern and military history, using GHS archives for research. In 2016, he was elected Chairman of the GHS Board. At the end of his second term in 2020, the board surprised him with an endowment, the Vince J. Dooley Distinguished Fellows Program.
Dooley Fellows fall into two categories: research and teaching. Fellowships support emerging historians outside of Savannah who are pursuing graduate, postdoctoral, and independent research for publication. The Distinguished Teaching Fellows recognize national leaders who have “changed the way the public understands the past”.
Dooley was surprised and honored. “I’ve always wanted to learn. I keep learning.”
Now a photograph of Dooley hangs in the office, a former kitchen just off the reading room transformed during the renovation into a quiet, contemplative carrel lined with books.
“HISTORY AND THE PAST ARE NOT THE SAME THING”
The reopening of GHS research facilities comes at a critical time as our nation and state struggles to tell its complicated story, where its founding ideals and the reality of its actions have not always delivered.
A Georgia House committee recently passed a bill to eliminate the teaching of “dividing concepts” in public school classrooms that could cause a person to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of his race”. In a city like Savannah, which is approaching its 300th anniversary, this complicated history is often personal, even for GHS.
John MacPherson Berrien, founding president of the GHS in 1839, served as a United States Senator and Attorney General under President Andrew Jackson. Berrien was also a slaveholder.
Groce is not afraid of this story. “I don’t think we have anything to fear from the past. We have nothing to fear from telling the truth. The facts are what they are. History and the past are not the same thing. History is the meaning that the present gives to the past. It changes, because we change. We find ourselves in a different place as we grow and evolve over time, we ask different questions of the past.
“The history of the past is complex,” he continues. “One of the challenges we have, then, is to understand that history changes as we look at the past in different ways. History is not just a collection of facts. History is a permanent debate. This is part of who we are as a democracy. Democracy is about debate.