They were drowning in debt, she found.
More foraging at the state archives in Morrow uncovered something much more sinister.
“I was able to document a whispered story of the lynching of a family member that occurred in Miller County during the 1920s,” said Davis-Hamilton of Decatur.
“These are records I wouldn’t have found in Miller County.”
Getting to records such as those will become a lot more difficult after Nov. 1.
That’s when the Georgia Archives, a repository of records and artifacts that go back to the 1700s, is slated to be closed to the public. The only public access will be through limited appointments.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced the closure “with great remorse” on Sept. 13 as the way his office will meet a required state budget cut of $732,626, or 3 percent.
The prospect has put the Georgia Archives in national news as the only state archives in the United States whose public records will be closed to the public.
“It’s like cutting me off from my history,” said Davis-Hamilton, chair of the Atlanta chapter of the African American Historical and Genealogical Society. “It’s cutting you off from your past.”
State archives staff numbered more than 100 in the early ’80s when it operated out of a facility in downtown Atlanta.
Staff was down to about 40 employees when the archives moved in 2003 to Morrow, near the entrance to Clayton State University.
Today, there are 10 employees who, on Nov. 1, will be cut to just three – two archivists and a maintenance worker.
Archives advocates are up in arms.
On Oct. 3, supporters protested the impending closure at the state Capitol in downtown Atlanta.
The rally was co-sponsored by the Society of Georgia Archivists and the Friends of Georgia Archives and History on behalf of the Coalition to Preserve the Georgia Archives.
The coalition, formed about a year ago, says Georgians rely on the archives to manage, preserve and provide timely access to government records and to keep government transparent and accountable.
At press time Thursday, a Facebook campaign, Georgians Against Closing State Archives, had 3,595 “likes.”
Meanwhile, more than 16,750 people have signed a change.org petition appealing to Gov. Nathan Deal to keep the archives open.
Deal is on record as saying the archives will remain open at last September’s annual signing of a Georgia Archives Month proclamation.
“We’re still working on our budget proposals, but the archives will stay open,” Deal said.
In response to a query from CrossRoadsNews, the governor’s press office said Wednesday that the governor is committed to keeping these important records accessible to Georgians.
“He’ll find funding to do that in the supplemental budget he proposes to the Legislature early next year,” the statement said. “What happens before that action can take place is in the hands of the Secretary of State’s Office.”
Kenneth H. Thomas, co-chairman of the Coalition to Preserve the Georgia Archives, said the loss of public access to the archives “sets a very bad precedent.”
“Public records are by nature public,” said Thomas, who lives in the city of Decatur. “For this amount of money … it’s just a very ridiculous situation.”
Johnny Waits, president of the Flat Rock Archive in Lithonia, said the state archives were invaluable in his initial research on the Flat Rock Community, which predates the formation of DeKalb County in 1822.
“For beginners, the state archives is very important because you have somebody that will help you,” Waits said.
With guidance from state archivists, Waits was able to find information on his great-great-grandmother Eliza Waits, who was enslaved.
Waits said he found that she was still living at her slave master’s plantation in 1870 in a house that would now be located at Browns Mill and Evans Mill roads in Lithonia.
Members of the Waits family still live on the land that formed that plantation in the area of Crossvale and Flat Rock roads. The Flat Rock Archive, a museum that holds records of the area, is at 3979 Crossvale Road.
In 2008 when it was still open five days per week, the Georgia Archives served 8,712 visitors at its Morrow offices even though some of its records are available online.
In 2010, public access was cut to three days per week, and by 2011 it was down to two days a week.
Kaye Lanning Minchew, co-chair of the Coalition to Preserve the Georgia Archives and director of the Troup County Archives who spoke at Wednesday’s rally, said this week that the Georgia Archives hold the earliest records of the people of Georgia, including the laws of the state.
“These are records that affect our daily lives,” Minchew said.
The archives have been used to determine where old gas tanks lie, to perform title searches and determine property rights for utilities, to settle regional disputes, and to ferret out the branches of family trees, all with a professional archivist available to assist.
Thomas, an author, principal historian in the state’s Historic Preservation Division, and a leading figure in Georgia genealogy, said that many of the resources African-Americans need to research their ancestry can only be found at the state archives.
He has used the Georgia Archives for 50 years, and he says that African-Americans access post-Civil War county tax digests that list Freedmen farmers and their employers that linked them to former plantation owners and other possible avenues for research.
Thomas said the facility holds pre-1900 records for each Georgia county, providing a central place to do research.
“African-Americans can search for postwar marriage and land records as well as antebellum estate records and deeds where slaves would be linked in family groupings,” he said. “Having personally traced slave deeds for Marion County, I know that a courthouse fire eliminated many sources, but recent published newspaper abstracts for the county’s legal organ from antebellum days showed many slave sales that helped supplement the missing deeds.”
There are death certificates that help determine burial sites, and 1867 voter registration books there show the names of the first blacks to register after the Civil War. The death certificates are also available online via the archives’ Virtual Vault.
Local historian Herman “Skip” Mason credits the Georgia Archives for some of the photographs in his 1998 book, “African-American Life in DeKalb County 1823-1970.”
David Rotenstein, a Georgia State University graduate who has worked in historic preservation and consulted on historic matters for 28 years, says “the state archives is like Google on steroids.”
Rotenstein, who lived near Washington, D.C., from 2000 until last year when he returned to Georgia, said he “practically had a second home” at the National Archives and the Library of Congress.
His research on race and urban renewal in the city of Decatur was published in the May 2012 issue of “Reflections,” a newsletter of the state’s Historic Preservation Division.
But he didn’t take a trip to the Georgia Archives to supplement his research on Decatur, relying instead on oral histories and records he could find on the county level.
“Access was so restricted by the time I got here that I sought alternatives,” Rotenstein said.
In a Sept. 21 statement, Kemp said his office can no longer afford to keep the state archives open to the public.
His office includes the State Elections Division; the Securities Division, which is charged with protecting Georgians from financial fraud; the Corporations Division, which processes hundreds of thousands of registrations for Georgia businesses; and the Professional Licensing Boards Division.
The statement said that the agency’s budget has been cut by more than 25 percent – from $32.1 million in 2008 to $23.7 million for the coming year. Staff has been reduced from 350 to 216 employees.
Kemp said his office, which generated $81.5 million in fees, got only $23.7 million in state appropriation to perform its duties.
“This unfortunate reality means that only funded functions can be maintained,” he said.
Georgia Archives: The Basics
Address: 5800 Jonesboro Road, Morrow, GA 30260
Public hours: Fridays and Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.