A joint resolution of the general assembly established the Tennessee Historical Commission on January 23, 1919. The resolution defined the duties of the committee to collect, compile, index, and arrange all data and information relating to the participation of Tennessee in World War I. The documents and data were assigned to the state librarian and archivist for safekeeping.
On March 29, 1921, the state Senate defined the committee’s duties in more detail and designated the director of the State Library and Archives chairman of the Tennessee Historical Committee. Historian and author John Trotwood Moore served as chairman until his death on May 10, 1921, after which the committee remained inactive for almost two decades. On April 18, 1940, Governor Prentice Cooper issued an executive order to call a meeting of the Tennessee Historical Committee. Only six members attended, and Governor Cooper acted as chairman. The minutes of the meeting used the new title, “Tennessee Historical Commission,” for the committee. Vacancies on the commission were soon filled, and Judge Samuel Cole Williams was elected chairman.
Subsequent legislative actions in 1951, 1959, and 1971 further defined the commission’s membership and expanded its area of responsibility to include evaluation, acquisition, and preservation of historic sites; selection and erection of historical markers; publication of books and other documents on Tennessee history; compilation of a Tennessee Register of Historic Places; and general administration of funds made available from public sources for historic purposes.
In 1971 the Tennessee General Assembly expanded the role of the commission to comply with the provisions of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. In compliance with the federal program, the commission’s work includes a county-by-county survey of all properties fifty years or older, nomination of the most significant ones to the National Register of Historic Places, review of all projects within the state utilizing federal funds to determine potential threats to cultural resources, public assistance in the administration of tax incentive programs, and work with the Certified Local Government program.
The commission provides grants to local nonprofit organizations to assist in the operation of state-owned historic sites. It grants funds for the publication of historical materials including the journals of the Tennessee Historical Society, the East Tennessee Historical Society, and the West Tennessee Historical Society. The commission provides assistance to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for the publication of the papers of Presidents Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson. Other programs administered by the commission provide awards to students, literacy advocates, preservationists, writers, and others for their achievements.
In 1994 the general assembly created the Tennessee Wars Commission. Creation of the new agency came in recognition of the exceptional resources available in Tennessee, the history of which not only dates to colonial times but is also the site of more Civil War battles than any other state except Virginia. As a result of the legislative act, the role of the Tennessee Historical Commission was once again expanded to “coordinate, plan, preserve, and promote structures, buildings, sites, and battlefields of Tennessee associated with the American Revolution and the War Between the States.”
The executive director and his staff have the responsibility of implementing the programs of the commission under the authority of the twenty-four members of the commission appointed to five-year terms by the governor.