County histories remind us of need to preserve historical records
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week guest contributor David B. Parker, professor of history at Kennesaw State University, takes a look at archivist Ruth Blair and the importance of county histories.
By David B. Parker
In 1929 the Georgia General Assembly passed a resolution urging counties to compile their histories in honor of the state’s upcoming bicentennial (in 1933, 200 years after the founding of Georgia in 1733). More than 100 counties appointed official historians, and nearly three dozen published their histories. These books varied, but they typically included chapters on geography and natural resources, Native Americans, the Civil War, churches, schools, newspapers, and so forth.
Among the authors of these books were teachers and lawyers, preachers and journalists, school superintendents and county court judges, and leaders of local historical or patriotic societies. The published histories tended to be long—an average of nearly 500 pages, from Schley County’s 33 pages to Upson’s 1,122. Many of those pages consisted of census records, military rosters, lists of county officials, and reprints of newspaper articles. Some books had lengthy biographical sections, with histories of prominent individuals or families. Many included general sections on life in the old days—quilting bees, militia days, barn raisings, corn shuckings, log rollings.
David Kyvig and Myron Marty, authors of Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You (1982), noted that the county histories written in the early 20th century tended to be “long on local pride and short on critical observations.” The first part of that formula was certainly correct. The title page of the Coffee County history explained that the book was “a story. . .showing that Coffee County, in South Georgia, is God’s Country and a good place to live.” Walker County residents were “a hardy, brave and patriotic citizenry,” and those of Chattahoochee were “splendid men and women. . .whose lives are a credit to the civilization of America.”
The books were certainly “long on local pride,” but were they “short on critical observations”? In many cases, yes. A number of the county historians uncritically embraced Lost Cause ideology, a historical perspective that downplayed the role of slavery in the coming of the Civil War, overstated the support of white southerners for the Confederate cause, and distorted the nature of Reconstruction.
Perhaps the Lost Cause is most evident in the discussions of slavery. The Dougherty County historian noted that the institution “was a feudalism as illustrious as that of any medieval country of Europe. The barons were the slaveholders—the serfs were the negroes, and perfect tranquility in relations prevailed.” In Schley County, “White settlers were kind to their slaves, clothed and fed them, and allowed them to worship with them in their churches.” In Upson County, “Everyone knows that slaves were treated very kindly indeed, and only in rare instances was there any trouble between slave and master.” In Walker County, “There were generally, almost universally, the kindest of relations between master and servant.” And in Coffee County, “The training the negroes received while they were slaves has been a great blessing to them.”
Not all county historians agreed with the Lost Cause interpretation of slavery. Lulie Pitts wrote of “the ignominy of human slavery” in her history of Gordon County, for example, and Victor Davidson of Wilkinson County described the class animosities that arose in antebellum society with the institution of slavery. Sarah Gober Temple of Cobb County acknowledged, more explicitly than any other county historian, that southern history “has been. . .overcast with sentimentality. We are apt to look back upon it with that exaggerated romanticism which has so distorted the viewpoints of many writers who have told of times before the war.”
These books should remind us of the need to preserve historic records and the importance of archives and archivists. This can be seen with a brief discussion of the most important person in Georgia’s bicentennial county history project: Ruth Blair, director of the state’s Department of Archives and History. Before Blair arrived in 1921, the state’s “archives” consisted of boxes of old papers stuck in various corners of the state capitol—including in the basement, where they were sometimes used to help light the furnace! Only in 1929 did Georgia acquire a permanent home, Rhodes Hall, for its historical records.
Blair was important for organizing the state’s records and making them available to researchers. In this age before Google Books and digitized records, Blair spent hours each week gathering information and answering questions from county historians. Because of budget cuts during the Great Depression, the department was badly understaffed; in fact, Blair had only one assistant for much of the time that the bicentennial histories were being written. But she was always there for the historians—not just to help with records but to insist on a job well done. She pushed the historians to hold to her high standards. When one tried to rush the process, Blair cautioned that “historical work is about the slowest thing I know of if properly done.” Authors acknowledged Blair, in the words of Bartow County historian Lucy Cunyus, as “an ever-ready source of inspiration and information.”
Georgia’s bicentennial histories are full of facts and lore, and they are often the best way to get at some of those details. For historians, they have an added significance as historic documents themselves, a window on life and thought in the 1930s (which in turn can tell us a lot about Georgia in 2015). Finally, they serve as a reminder of the importance of archives and archivists—an appropriate thought as we celebrate Georgia Archives Month in October.
David B. Parker is a professor of history at Kennesaw State University. He wrote on Ruth Blair for the most recent issue of Provenance, the journal of the Society of Georgia Archivists.
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.