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Archives supporters launch funding fight

Historians, genealogists demand ‘fair’ money allocation

Suwannee resident Elizabeth Olson participated in a pro-Georgia Archives rally outside the state Capital in Atlanta Monday. Archives supporters called on legislators to restore funding to the agency as the Georgia General Assembly's 2013 session got underway.

Suwannee resident Elizabeth Olson participated in a pro-Georgia Archives rally outside the state Capital in Atlanta Monday. Archives supporters called on legislators to restore funding to the agency as the Georgia General Assembly's 2013 session got underway.

— Georgia’s 2013 legislative session began with lawmakers having to make their way past a dozen historians and genealogists demanding full funding for the state archives Monday.

The archives supporters were at the state Capitol building to call on legislators to add more funding to the Georgia Archives’ budget. The archives faced the prospect of restricting access to state historical records to a “by appointment” basis last fall.

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Curt Yeomans

Brookhaven resident Sarah Rondeau leads protest chants calling on legislators to restore full funding for the Georgia Archives outside the state Capitol in Atlanta Monday. It was the opening day of the Georgia General Assembly’s 2013 session. Behind Rondeau is a statue of Georgia statesman Thomas E. Watson, who is described on the memorial as a lawyer and historian.

photo

Curt Yeomans

Georgia Archives supporters protest outside the state Capital in Atlanta Monday to convince legislators to restore full funding for the archives. The protest coincided with the opening of the Georgia General Assembly's 2013 legislative session.

photo

Curt Yeomans

Jonesboro historian Jim Sterling participates in a pro-Georgia Archives rally on the steps of the state Capital in Atlanta Monday. Sterling was one of more than a dozen archives supporters who called on legislators to restore funding to the agency.

photo

Curt Yeomans

State Rep. Roger Bruce (right, D-Atlanta) walks through a group of Georgia Archives supporters as they protested outside the state Capital Monday. The protestors called on legislators to restore full funding to the archives on the first day of the Georgia General Assembly's 2013 session.

At the last minute, state leaders gave the Morrow-based facility a reprieve by agreeing to transfer it from the Secretary of State’s Office to the University System of Georgia. The transfer is still pending legislative approval which archives supporters view as a formality.

“We’re more focused on getting more funds to keep the archives open five days a week right now,” said Vivian Saffold, co-chairwoman of the Georgia Archives Matters advocacy group. “We understand the transfer is basically a done deal. The governor wants it to happen so it’s going to happen.”

Supporters of the state archives argue the facility has been unduly targeted in repeated rounds of budgets cuts in recent years. A few years ago, it was open almost every day of the week, but it is now open to the public only two days a week.

The archives’ staff has also been cut down to a handful of employees.

The small group of protesters held signs, marching in a circle on the Capitol’s steps while spouting chants like “Save the archives,” “Full funding, fair funding” and “Five days a week.”

The protesters called on the Georgia General Assembly to inject as much as $600,000 into the archives budget as part of its transfer to the university system.

Suwanee resident Elizabeth Olson argued it was hypocritical of state leaders to make education a top funding priority while continuing to cut money for the archives. Olson is the vice-chairwoman of the Georgia Genealogical Society.

“How can we say education is a priority if we are willing to shut away the history of this state?” she said.

Jonesboro-based historian Jim Sterling said Clayton County residents have a vested interest in the outcome of the Georgia Archives fight since it is situated in their county and affects their economy.

Historians and genealogists from across the state have pointed out for months that they eat at Clayton County restaurants and shop at local stores when they visit the archives to do research.

“It would be detrimental to the county if the archives were closed because people come from all over to do research there,” he said.

Sterling and other protesters will likely find sympathetic ears with members of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation who pledged in December to do whatever they could to support the archives during the General Assembly’s session.

Archives’ proponents argued if they are successful in their bid to get all of the money they are seeking, it might be enough to restore three of the operation days cut in recent years.

“We’re trying to achieve fair funding for the archives,” said Olson. “The archives has received a disproportionate amount of cuts in recent years. Last year, the Secretary of State chose to take the entire amount of the budget cut he was required to take out of the archives’ funding. That was about $730,000.”

Sterling conducted genealogy research that uncovered a link between first lady Michelle Obama and a slave in the Rex area named Melvinia Shields.

Records needed for historical and genealogical research, he said, include preserved land deeds, court documents and the archived paperwork of high-profile leaders, such as former governor and President Jimmy Carter.

“It’s not just family records, it’s other records, too,” Sterling said.

But with the state’s budget expected to be tight this year, archives supporters are realistic about their chances of getting all of the money they want for the facility.

Saffold said she and other archives supporters would be pleased if they can at least get half of the amount they want added back to the facility’s budget.

“The director of the archives has told me he could do a lot with an extra $300,000 so we’re not talking about of a lot of money,” she said. “If they take just a little bit of the money set aside for the Savannah River deepening project, and a little bit of money from someplace else, it gets the archives back to being open five days a week. They wouldn’t miss it, but it would mean a lot to the archives.”

Proponents of additional archives funding are posting updates about their movement on georgiaarchivesmatters.org/.