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Supporters rally to save Georgia Archives

Historians, genealogists put pressure on politicians

Photo by Curt Yeomans
Approximately 150 fans of the Georgia Archives gathered at the state Capitol in Atlanta Wednesday for a "Support the Archives" rally.

Photo by Curt Yeomans Approximately 150 fans of the Georgia Archives gathered at the state Capitol in Atlanta Wednesday for a "Support the Archives" rally.

ATLANTA — Annette McEachin said her ancestors would be “turning over in their graves” if they knew that Georgia planned to close its archives to public access next month.

McEachin, from Marietta, said she is descended from Austrians who came to Georgia in 1734, a year after James Oglethorpe founded the future state as a colony for the British crown. Much of what she knows about her family’s involvement in the earliest years of Georgia’s existence comes from records found in the Georgia Archives’ holdings, she said.

Those records have told her where her ancestors came from and what they endured, including disease and war, after they arrival in Georgia.

“If they knew there’d be no access to the records of what they went through, they’d be turning over in their graves,” said McEachin.

McEachin, a member of the Genealogy Society of Cobb County, was one of approximately 150 people who attended a “Save the Archives” rally Wednesday outside Gov. Nathan Deal’s office at the state Capitol.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced last month that he will close the Morrow-based archives — except to people who scheduled private appointments in advance — to meet a mandate from Deal to cut three percent of his office’s budget. The move was expected to save the state $733,000.

If the Georgia Archives closes its doors Nov. 1, as planned, Georgia will become the only state whose archives is not open to public access.

The key issue for supporters is the loss of access to historical records that can be used for academic and genealogical research.

“Once you get into genealogy, it’s a disease you don’t ever recover from,” said McDonough resident Carole Roach, who attended the rally dressed as a colonial soldier.

Deal promised to keep the archives open two weeks ago, during a meeting with archives supporters. He has not said how he will fund that promise, and Kemp has said the governor and state legislators will need to provide him with a funding source.

“It’s important to point out the $733,000 that will be saved from closing the archives is less than half the annual operating costs of the state’s Go Fish Museum,” said University of Georgia professor Jim Cobb, in reference to the state’s controversial fishing museum in Perry.

The museum, a pet project of former Gov. Sonny Perdue when he was in office, cost the state millions to build and operate.

Area leaders pledge support

During Wednesday’s rally, State Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) and Morrow Mayor Joseph “J.B.” Burke pledged to do what they could to fight for the archives — since it is in their backyards.

“We cannot be the only state in the country to not have a state archives,” said Davenport, who called the archives a “treasure.”

Burke added, “We’re going to keep the archives open.”

Other local dignitaries at the rally included former state Sen. Gail Buckner, Morrow City Councilwoman Jeanell Bridges, Morrow police Chief Chris Leighty and Morrow Business and Tourism Association President Mike Twomey.

No one from Clayton County government, including its economic development department — which wants to use the location of the state and national archives to attract genealogy-based businesses to the county — was present, however. The Clayton County Board of Commissioners has so far been publicly quiet on the archives issue since the closure was announced.

“That really disappoints me,” said Jonesboro resident Joyce Patton, the second vice-regent for the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Georgia State Society. “They should be here.”

A cornucopia of backing

The issue has brought together a variety of groups and individuals, including a professor from the University of Georgia, former Congressman and Presidential candidate Bob Barr, sitting state representatives and senators, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Friends of the Georgia Archives, and several other civic, historical and genealogical groups.

Barr called on attendees to write letters to Deal, Kemp and every member of the Georgia General Assembly, to express their displeasure over the planned closing of the archives. Access to public records is an “essential element of having a free people and an educated people,” he said.

Barr then added the state’s public records belong to its residents and not any single elected official.

“They need to hear, loud and clear, this decision to close off public access to public information and documents will not stand,” he said.

State Rep. Debbie Buckner (D-Junction City) said she felt the archives became “out-of-sight and out-of-mind” for many state leaders after the agency moved from East Point to Morrow in 2005.

“It’s a total and complete embarrassment for a state — with the richest history in our nation — to have its archives closed,” said Buckner.

Rallies to continue

Wednesday’s rally was just one of several rallies planned for the coming weeks, where supporters will continue trying to pressure state officials to keep the archives open.

Future protests are expected to take place before Nov. 1 at the archives. Organizers said dates and times will be announced, as they are set, on the Friends of the Georgia Archives website, www.fogah.org/.

Cobb said the archives issue has become a black eye for the state. It has become such an embarrassment, he said, other Southeastern states which are traditionally laughed at, and considered backward-thinking, are now laughing at Georgia.

“If this rally were held outdoors, I’m sure we’d be hearing a rising chorus of people from Alabama and Mississippi shouting, ‘Thank God for Georgia,’ ” said Cobb.