Paul K. Graham

Certified Genealogist SM

Accredited Genealogist ®

Genealogical Research at the DeKalb History Center

Originally published in the Georgia Genealogical Society Quarterly 44, no. 2 (Summer 2008), pps. 133-139.

The mission of the DeKalb History Center is to collect, preserve, and share the history of DeKalb County, Georgia. Founded in 1947, the organization maintains a significant collection of archival materials related to the county and its people in its archives, officially known as the McCurdy Family Research Center. The DeKalb History Center is located in the Old Courthouse on the Square in downtown Decatur at the intersection of Clairemont Avenue and West Ponce de Leon Avenue.

PREPARATION

There are two things you need to do before going to the DeKalb History Center. First, visit the Center’s website at www.dekalbhistory.org. Browse the “Archival Resources” section for materials related to your research question. Second, make an appointment. Appointments are not required, but they are highly recommended. The Research Center has one paid staff member and a small group of volunteers: by managing when researchers visit, the staff member is able to provide more personal service to each patron.

Be prepared to pay for parking in downtown Decatur. Information about parking is available at the end of this article. Also bring cash or checks if you plan to make copies (twenty-five cents per page). DHC does not accept credit cards. Smoking, eating, and drinking are prohibited in the Research Center. Pens may not be used, and pencils are provided for your convenience.

THE REFERENCE ROOM

The McCurdy Family Research Center is located on the first floor of the Old Courthouse on the Square. Research tables are in the middle of the room. The library, a card catalog index to the collection, the yearbook collection, microfilm, a map cabinet, and the Obituary Files are along the walls. Patrons are free to browse all of this material except the maps, which are pulled by staff members.

Upon arriving in the Research Center, patrons are asked to fill out a Research Request Form. Provide your contact details, information about the subject you are researching, and sign that you agree to abide to the rules for use of the collection. The staff will then begin assisting you with your research.

Three basic finding aids are available for use by patrons in the Research Center. One volume includes an index to the Biographical, Subject, and Photograph Files. Another book contains descriptive inventories of the Special Collections. These finding aids are available on the DeKalb History Center’s website. A large card file located in the main reference room is an extremely useful local index to the collection. It also contains entries for other records that may not be at the Research Center, such as newspapers, deeds, and wills. The card file was created in the 1980s and early 1990s and has both biographical and subject entries.

Most of the material in the collection is stored in an adjoining secure room. Patrons are not allowed to browse the collection directly. The staff will pull materials by request.

The library consists of over fifteen hundred books on a variety of topics related to biography and American history. The DeKalb County section contains over one hundred books about local topics, such as religion, education, military, cities, and law enforcement. Yearbooks are available for some DeKalb County schools, primarily Agnes Scott College and Decatur Boys and Girls High Schools. Patrons may browse the library collection, and a card file index to authors, titles, and subjects is available.

BIOGRAPHICAL, SUBJECT, AND CEMETERY FILES

The most-used parts of the collection are the Biographical, Subject, and Cemetery Files. These are vertical files that contain a wide mixture of donated documents about people, organizations, places, and events in DeKalb County history. The amount of content for each subject varies widely: some have one item and some fill three folders.

The Biographical Files are arranged alphabetically by name and include folders on individuals and families. They primarily consist of short, compiled genealogies, copies of original records contributed by researchers, research notes, and newspaper clippings.

The Subject Files are arranged by Library of Congress subject headings and contain an assortment of contributed material about a wide range of topics, for example: businesses, cities and communities, education, government, historic homes, military history, religion, and transportation.

The Cemetery Files include cemetery transcriptions, obituaries, maps, notes, and other documents about known cemeteries in DeKalb County. Copies of Franklin Garrett’s 1931 transcriptions are included. An online index to cemeteries is available on the DHC website.

SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

The most significant materials maintained by the DeKalb History Center are the Special Collections. Over one hundred collections of original manuscripts, personal papers, photographs, and government records are available to researchers. A list of these collections is on the DeKalb History Center’s website.

Some significant and interesting collections include:

  • Antique Lovers’ Club: minutes, directories, guest book, and scrapbook, 1938-1983
  • William Black: photographs for Chamblee High School yearbooks, 1940s-1960s
  • Boy Scouts of America: early records of Decatur, Clarkston and Stone Mountain troops, dating from 1918
  • Scott Candler Sr.: sixteen boxes of legal documents from Candler’s law practice in the 1920s and 1930s
  • Davis Family Papers: family papers, letters, and notebooks of Robert F. Davis family, 1867-1887
  • Marion Guess Collection: five boxes of miscellaneous official DeKalb County records dating from 1944 to 1950.
  • Post Office records: two collections of U.S. Post Office records from Doraville and Decatur facilities, including money order books from the 1890s showing names of sender and recipient
  • Redan United Methodist Church: church papers from 1894 to 1928
  • Title Abstracts: hundreds of title abstracts from local Decatur law office produced between 1914 and 1925, with title information extending back to state land grants in many cases
  • Voter Registration Forms: almost 70,000 voter registration forms from the 19-teens to the 1940s

PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTIONS

The DeKalb History Center collection includes thousands of photographs dating from the Civil War to the current day. The Photograph Subject Files are a general collection of individual photographs organized by subject. An inventory of these photographs is available on the DeKalb History Center website.

Other photograph and picture collections are available, but most have not been inventories. The most significant single photograph collection is the Guy Hayes Collection. Guy Hayes was a professional photographer from the 1940s to the 1980s. Many of his photographs were published in major newspapers. He donated his collection of negatives to the DeKalb History Center, and approximately one third of the 13,000 images have been inventoried.

Another major collection of photographs comes from the DeKalb News/Sun, a free county newspaper that closed in the 1990s. It includes thousands of photographic prints dating from the 1970s to the 1990s. The collection has not been processed and many of the photographs are still in their original envelopes. Access to the collection is available under direct staff supervision.

MAP COLLECTION

Almost one thousand maps are available at the DeKalb History Center, covering a wide variety of areas, scales, and topics. An inventory of the Map Collection is available on the DeKalb History Center website.

Some examples include:

  • 1915 – Maynard-Carter-Simmons Map of DeKalb County, showing land owners
  • 1917 – City of Stone Mountain
  • 1937 – School Districts
  • 1952 – Base Plan, proposed rail beltway around Atlanta
  • 1956 series – USGS topographic maps
  • 1967 – Flood Control map book
  • 1968 – Militia Districts
  • 1968 – DeKalb County Water System
  • 1970 – Location of 362 Churches

DIRECTORIES

City directories are used heavily to track urban residents and to research house histories. An almost-complete set of Atlanta City and Suburban directories is available in the Research Center from 1918 to 1991. A few additional directories date back to 1887. DeKalb County was not represented in the Atlanta city directories in a substantial way until the 1920s. Most of Decatur did not appear in the directories until the 1930s. In order to help preserve these books, they are stored in a separate room and must be requested by patrons.

A county directory was published in 1939 and is available in the library. It lists residents alphabetically by community and specifically lists places that were not included in the 1939 Atlanta City Directory. Some information you may learn includes the name of a spouse, occupation, and address. This is a useful substitute for the 1940 U.S. census, which will not be available to the public until 2012.

COUNTY RECORDS

While the DeKalb History Center maintains a number of official county record collections, most official records are maintained by the government office that created them, such as the Superior Court. The History Center is not an official repository of the county government. Staff can provide guidance for the use of records at other locations, but the records must be accessed at the proper office.

WEBSITE

The DeKalb History Center’s website, located at www.dekalbhistory.org, is a useful tool for genealogical research. Researchers should pay attention to two specific areas: Archival Resources and Online Research.

The Archival Resources section contains inventories to the primary collections. Using this section, researchers are able to determine what materials are available before coming to the History Center. Researchers are encouraged to browse this section of the website before contacting the History Center with a research request.

The other section of the website useful to researchers is Online Research. It contains databases of transcribed data from various sources. The Cemetery Database has the names and vital dates of people buried in many of DeKalb County’s cemeteries. The Marriage Database includes all marriages from 1840 to 1902/1908 recorded in DeKalb County. Some other databases include: Will Records, Superior Court Records (1836-1843), Land Records, 1821 Georgia Land Lottery, and the DeKalb Confederate Database.

DONATIONS

The DeKalb History Center relies on donations to build its collection. The staff reviews all potential donations and determines if the material fits the goals of the organization. If items are accepted, the donor signs a deed of gift that transfers physical and literary rights to the DeKalb History Center.

ACCESS

Access to the collection is available to researchers on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday each week, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Researchers are encourage to make an appointment before arriving.

Parking is generally problematic for first-time visitors to Decatur. Metered parking on the street is available. The DeKalb County Courthouse parking deck at the corner of Commerce Drive and Trinity Place costs two dollars to park all day. The deck is located less than two blocks walking distance from the Old Courthouse. Validation for a parking deck behind Ruby Tuesday and Crescent Moon is available for patrons of those restaurants. The restaurants are located on West Ponce de Leon Avenue and the parking deck entrance is on Swanton Way.

CONTACT INFORMATION

DeKalb History Center
Old Courthouse on the Square
101 E Court Square
Decatur, GA 30030
404-373-1088 (extension 23 for the Research Center)
Main E-mail: dhs@dekalbhistory.org
Research Requests: archives@dekalbhistory.org