NARA in Atlanta

Jay Hakes and Jim McSweeney, October 2006

The National Archives operates its new Southeast Regional Archives facility just south of Atlanta and the Carter Presidential Library a mile from downtown. As a result, historians attending the 2007 AHA annual meeting can take advantage of research opportunities that are both extensive and convenient.

On April 1, 2005, the National Archives Southeast Region opened its $28.5 million state-of-the-art archival facility in Morrow, Georgia, located adjacent to the Georgia Archives and Clayton State University. The facility boasts a 3,000 square foot Conference/Training Center (with teleconferencing capability), an outdoor amphitheater, a Visitor Learning Center (complete with an archives-themed bookstore), and spacious microfilm and textual research rooms. The elegant main lobby plays host to "Firsthand History," the region's permanent exhibit featuring over 500 facsimiles of regional documents and photographs. The public hours for the facility are Tuesday through Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; the primary facility contact number is 770-968-2100. An overview of regional services and programs as well as the region's online exhibit can be found at www.archives.gov/southeast and www.archives.gov/southeast/exhibit/.

The grandeur of the facility is rivaled only by the scope, breadth and diversity of its holdings. The National Archives Southeast Region holds in trust original records documenting the settlement and development of a unique section of the United States. It maintains over 115,000 cubic feet of historical records from regional offices of Federal agencies in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The archival holdings, dating from 1716 to the 1980s, chronicle significant social, cultural, economic, political, and technological trends in American history. Subjects contained in the holdings include the evolution of federal courts, constitutional rights, war and conflict, organized crime, science and invention, the arts, censorship, music and popular culture, the New Deal, immigration, Civil Rights, and space exploration. Historic names in the files include Aaron Burr, Wernher Von Braun, Andrew Johnson, Leo Frank, Sgt. Alvin York, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Elvis Presley, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Records from the U.S. District Courts comprise nearly 50 percent of regional holdings and weave a fascinating narrative of the region's social and cultural history. In particular, the court holdings trace the region's path to civil liberties, ranging from a slave's bill of sale in 1833 to the Briggs vs. Elliott case (one of the five cases heard under Brown v. Board of Education) to John Lewis's riveting testimony pursuant to the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Technical drawings and reports from the Department of Energy and NASA chronicle Cold War–driven initiatives such as the "Manhattan Project," Apollo space missions, and weapons development.

Just as importantly, these and other records from Federal agencies document the quiet heroism of the common citizen. The records tell the stories of ordinary people—farmers, merchants, prisoners—people who never imagined that, years later, anyone would ever be interested in their stories, let alone find humor, hardship, and tragedy in them. Of the approximately 800,000 photographs from the Tennessee Valley Authority are photographs of families, homes, towns, cemeteries, and buildings, many of which have vanished. Photographs from the Tuskegee Syphilis Study coupled with other holdings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide oftentimes chilling insights into Government programs and the human condition. Inmate case files from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary (1902 to the early 1920s) allow researchers to track the prisoners' every move with the same diligence as the prison guards who watched them. The region's 24 million original World War I Draft Registration Cards garner immense interest from family historians and genealogists; in this collection of documents, Louis Armstrong, Robert Frost, Duke Ellington, Al Capone, and Babe Ruth "stand shoulder to shoulder" with our grandfathers and other family members.

William Faulkner said, "The past is not dead. It's not even past." The themes contained in the holdings of the National Archives Southeast Region remain both timely and relevant to this very day. The South's paradoxical and complicated history demands an intense exploration that only primary sources can provide. The famous, the infamous, the extraordinary, and the ordinary are waiting to be discovered or rediscovered at this magnificent archival facility.

The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library shares a bermed, circular building with the Carter Center on Freedom Parkway, a delightful boulevard running east from the downtown area. As the only one of the nation's 12 presidential libraries located in the Southeast, it provides a venue for original research and a unique museum tour.

The jewel of the manuscripts collections is the presidential handwriting file, which is actually materials from President Carter's outbox, complete with his frequent handwritten annotations. Not all of the items President Carter saw are included (it is particularly weak on foreign and military policy), but the series is the most accurate reflection of the President's daily paperwork. The 125 linear-foot series is arranged chronologically.

Other manuscripts number more than 20 million pages, and most can be searched by topic. Almost every major issue of the late 1970's is reflected somewhere in this vast collection. In foreign affairs, Middle Eastern peace negotiations, the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with China, the Panama Canal Treaty, and relations with Iran have drawn considerable attention. On the domestic front, the issues of inflation, energy, deregulation, and Alaska lands rank high in researcher interest.

The number of documents available for research continues to grow. A massive declassification program is under way, and major figures from the administration continue to donate materials. Former Vice President Mondale recently deeded over his national security papers, which are currently being processed. (Carter was the last president not covered by the Presidential Records Act of 1978.)
The audiovisual collections include White House Staff photographs and White House Communications Agency videotapes. Finding aids and selected research materials from the Carter Library are on line, as are answers to common questions, such as location and hours of operation. All can be found at www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov.

A visit to the museum at the Carter Library will include a chance to see Carter's 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, an exact replica of the Oval Office, a 12-minute film on the Camp David Peace Accords, an impressive array of presidential gifts, and much more. The sections on the 1976 presidential campaign and the Panama Canal seem like throwbacks to a different era. By contrast, the coverage of energy and the Iranian hostages remain closely tied to current events. The museum gift shop offers an unusual collection of souvenirs.

During the week of the AHA annual meeting in Atlanta, all attendees showing their credentials will be admitted to the museum for half price. Last minute phone queries can be directed to 404-865-7100.

—Jay Hakes serves as the Director of the Carter Presidential Library. He came to Atlanta in 2000 after seven years as Administrator of the federal Energy Information Administration. He is currently writing a book on energy policy during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter presidencies.

—James McSweeney is the Regional Administrator for the National Archives Southeast Region located in Morrow, Georgia. He has inaugurated innovative public programs with the Georgia Archives, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, the National Constitution Center, and other cultural and higher education institutions in Georgia.