Image via Unsplash.

As I reflect on what has been nearly a decade as Atlanta Housing’s (AH) first Archivist, I find myself humbled and honored by the incredible journey I’ve had. Archivists bear the responsibility of selecting, preserving, organizing, and managing historical and invaluable records, documents, and artifacts. Our mission is to ensure the protection, cataloging, and accessibility of these materials for research and reference purposes, thereby safeguarding the collective memory and history of organizations, institutions, or communities.

Archivists play an indispensable role in preserving and providing access to documents and records that carry historical, cultural, and informational significance. In doing so, archivists facilitate a deeper understanding of the past and its profound influence on the present and future. Given Atlanta Housing’s distinctive place in the history of public housing, our archival work takes on paramount importance in documenting and preserving Atlanta’s shared memory.

Meredith “Merri” Mitchem, a Certified Archivist with over 15 years of experience in various archival and historical collection settings, is a passionate advocate for the value of archives. From 2014 to 2023, Mitchem served as the Archivist and later Senior Archivist at Atlanta Housing, where she made history as the organization’s first Archivist. Under her leadership, the Atlanta Housing Archives received the prestigious “Excellence in Archival Program Development Award” from the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Council in 2018.

Atlanta Housing holds a unique place in the annals of public housing and became the first public housing agency in the United States to have an archivist. From the very beginning, this organization recognized the significance of documenting its history, ensuring that the lessons learned and milestones achieved would not fade away with time.

Established in 1938, one of the most noteworthy chapters in Atlanta’s public housing history is the story of Techwood Homes and University Homes. These housing developments hold the distinction of being the first federally subsidized public housing projects in the nation. Their construction during the Great Depression marked a turning point in public housing policy, offering a glimmer of hope to those most severely affected by economic turmoil.

Techwood and University Homes were beacons of possibility, providing not just shelter but a vision for a brighter future. In 1996, this same spirit of vision played a crucial role in Atlanta’s hosting of the Summer Olympics. Atlanta Housing was instrumental in implementing the HOPE VI program, which aimed to revitalize public housing communities across the country. These efforts brought transformative change to Atlanta’s landscape, further solidifying the agency’s impact on the city’s history.

But history isn’t just about firsts; it’s about the people who lived in these communities, the stories they shared, and the challenges they overcame. It’s about the community leaders, the families, and the individuals who shaped these neighborhoods, building bonds that would last for generations. As an archivist, I’ve had the privilege of preserving these stories, ensuring that they endure as a testament to the resilience and spirit of Atlanta’s residents.

Photo provided by Meredith “Merri” Mitchem.

My journey at Atlanta Housing began on Oct. 13, 2014. Stepping into the role of Archivist, I immediately confronted a significant challenge — a backlog of unindexed records. These records lay scattered in disintegrating cardboard boxes, exposed to pests, and hidden away in attics and basements prone to flooding. Within this chaotic labyrinth of history, I stumbled upon a forgotten bust of Charles F. Palmer, AH’s founding chairperson and the father of federally funded public housing in the United States. His bust was buried beneath layers of holiday ornaments and dust, a poignant symbol of the organization’s disconnection from its own heritage.

The challenges were numerous. Records were disorganized, labels were inadequate, and indexing was absent. Duplications and the separation of signatures from original agreements made retrieval difficult compromised the authenticity of documents, and risked the loss of invaluable historical information. It was a daunting task, but it was a task worth undertaking.

In just three months after joining the agency, I faced a critical task: locating missing records and documentation essential for securing a $30 million federal housing grant in 2015 — the University Homes Choice Neighborhoods Grant. Specifically, the grant application hinged on obtaining the records related to East Lake Meadows’s Proposed off-site replacement housing New Community at East Lake, including an agreement between the AHA and ELM Resident Association, witnessed and signed by Jimmy Carter on June 3, 1997.

The challenge was substantial. Before my arrival, no archivist had been in place, leading to the misplacement of this critical record. To compound the issue, the signature from the document had been separated and improperly filed. Undeterred, I embarked on a search that ultimately led me to an unexpected discovery. Tucked away in a discarded binder in the attic, I located the missing document — a find that would prove indispensable.

Without this record, the grant’s approval might have remained elusive for Atlanta Housing. However, with the documentation in hand, the grant was awarded in 2015, and its impact was profound. This funding played a pivotal role in bolstering revitalization efforts on Atlanta’s struggling Westside, bringing hope and transformative change to the community.

The significance of this achievement was emphasized when the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Congressman John Lewis personally visited Atlanta to confirm the city’s position as one of the five recipients of the Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant. This initiative, guided by the White House, aimed to enhance communities through affordable mixed-income housing, youth services, and partnerships with schools and private entities. Atlanta’s success in securing this grant was a testament to the dedication and tenacity displayed in the preservation and retrieval of crucial historical records.

Over the course of my first year, I rolled up my sleeves and dedicated myself to reconstructing 77 key record collections. It was a labor of love, laying the groundwork for a more organized archival system. My goal was not just to organize records but to create a robust archival program that would serve as a valuable resource for researchers and the public. I wanted to ensure that Atlanta Housing’s history would remain accessible for generations to come.

In 2015, my temporary position became permanent, thanks to the vision of Ms. Joy Fitzgerald, Atlanta Housing’s President and CEO at the time. She understood the importance of preserving our history and acknowledged the role archives play in safeguarding our collective memory. It was under her leadership that I received the CEO Award for “Preserving Our Past” in 2015, an honor that underscored the value of the archival work we were doing.

A defining moment arrived in 2018 when the Atlanta Housing Archives, established just four years prior, received the “Excellence in Archival Program Development Award” from the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Council. This recognition for Atlanta Housing was a testament to our collective dedication and the belief that preserving history is a responsibility we all share.

My time with Atlanta Housing has been marked by challenges, personal growth, and the deep satisfaction of knowing that I’ve played a part in preserving Atlanta Housing’s history.

As I reflect on this journey, I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given and the remarkable team throughout my time at AH who has helped make it all possible, particularly Record Managers Gordon Brown, Natalie Austin, and Katie Kalkanger, formal Archival Assistant Jessie Hopper, and RIM’s former Director Tony (Fred) Parker.

My hope is that the archival work I have contributed will continue to illuminate the past and inspire future generations to explore and cherish the storied history of Atlanta Housing. Our history is more than a record of the past; it’s a guidepost for our future, a reminder of the challenges we’ve overcome, and a source of inspiration for what we can achieve.

Join the Conversation


  1. Amazing work that speaks to your talent. I am so sorry the new org changes put you under the attrition queen. That was the worst thing to ever affect so many people including myself. It took me a bit to adjust, and like others, I have moved on. Keep up the fantastic work, and I hope to see your skills grow.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.