Living Testimony, Faithful to Cleo & Lifting the Race: Dr. Roland McConnell

                                                 Happy American Archives Month!

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Ida E. Jones, University Archivist at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland

Professor of history and author Dr. Roland Calhoun McConnell was born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada on March 10, 1910. McConnell graduated from Dunbar High School in 1927, where he was a classmate of historian Sadie I. Daniels and Dr. Robert C. Weaver. McConnell earned his A.B. degree in 1931 and his M.A. degree in 1933 from Howard University, where Charles Wesley introduced him to Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now ASALH).

After graduating, McConnell taught at Elizabeth State Teachers College before joining the United States Army in 1942. In 1943, McConnell served as visiting lecturer at Howard University and archivist at the National Archives in the Army Branch of the War Records Office.

Dr. McConnell completed his doctorate in history with a minor in sociology. He taught on the college level during his doctoral program at Elizabeth City. His matriculation was interrupted by World War II where he served as a statistical clerk, CFA-4, a Second Lieutenant, as well as, a researcher in the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

In 1946 Colonel HP Hennessey penned a letter to Solon J. Buck, Archivist of the United States commending the War Department records staff where Dr. McConnell worked with Dr. Elisabeth B. Drewry and Mr. J.W. Crowder. Hennessey noted “members of the archives staff showed [us] every possible trouble to help him in his research. The staff were particularly helpful.”

Photograph of the Conference on Federal Archives as Sources for Afro-American Research [Roland McConnell] (NAID 35810342)

Arriving at Morgan State University in 1948, McConnell became chairman of the Division of Social Science from 1953 to 1955, chairman of the Department of History from 1967 to 1975, Professor Emeritus in 1981 and Carter G. Woodson Scholar in Residence. McConnell taught history in a department with Dr. Benjamin Quarles and contributed articles to The Journal of Negro History, The North Carolina Historical Review, The Maryland Pendulum, and the Afro-American and Baltimore Sun newspapers. His book, Negro Troops of Antebellum Louisiana, A History of the Battalion of Men of Color is still widely referenced.

In addition to his writings and teaching, McConnell served as chair of the Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture from 1972 to 1984. Dr. McConnell’s career exemplifies that of a public historian. This unique perspective ahead of its time sought to fuse historical consciousness, service and instruction in all avenues. Dr. McConnell’s career is a paradigm in public history and ASALH servant leadership.

In April 1949 in an article “Importance of Records in the National Archives on the History of the Negro,” Dr. McConnell wrote:

“The History of the Negro in the United States of America remains yet untold. Moreover, it will remain untold until the mountain of records in the National Archives are effectively utilized as an historical source. This is not only true of the history of the Negro but of American history in general, since the National Archives, the federal repository of raw record materials and original source materials of an official type in the United States of America, is virtually untapped as a source for research in history.”

Dr. McConnell, a newly minted PhD in 1949 with 10 years of collegiate instruction under his belt, knew that the primary sources of history were evolving from oral history to source documents now gathered together in a repository in Washington. There were collections throughout various historical societies, universities and public libraries – however the official government record served as a baseline to aspects of information and social justice in military, economic, political and judicial equity. Rising students of history, historians and educators needed to incorporate these primary sources into their learning and research, as well as, monitor their availability and access.  His sensitivity to the archival profession and the power of primary sources remained an active part of his pedagogical method.

He went further to goad all historians, students and lettered to partner with archivists in learning methods of preservation.

“Until the technique and methodology of maintaining records [at NARA] becomes an adjunct of historiography and prospective students and teachers of history and the social sciences are required to become exposed to it, the writing, teaching and study of history will continue to suffer…History is constantly being rewritten. On the basis of new evidence revision is necessary. If there is a possibility that [NARA] contains new evidence, the alert student of history wants to know how he can get at it and utilize it and not wait until some formal course in archival science is added to the curriculum.”

To this end, McConnell innovated his own archival program in 1937 at Elizabeth City State Teachers College. He instructed his students to conduct oral interviews with family members who were formerly enslaved. He intended to publish these papers to document familial reminiscences of enslavement, as well as demonstrate the power of storytelling and document creation, which were possible in the field of African American history.

A Columbia History Professor in August 5, 1938 remarked:

“Your idea for a volume of slavery narrative is an excellent one – if you can but reach enough old slaves, or children of old slaves. It is too bad that somebody did not think of this thirty years ago, when so many were surviving. The two papers you have sent me are full of interest, and with your permission I should like to keep them. I recommend that you do not give too much literary smoothness to the papers – that you take pains to quote the ex-slaves accurately even then they are ungrammatical, and that you preserve their personal flavor of their stories. Such a volume will have real historical value; and I think you would not meet much difficulty in finding a publisher.”

As a result, when Dr. Charles Wesley introduced McConnell to Dr. Carter G. Woodson in the early 1930s, he knew that documenting aspects of African American history was a must of all aspiring historians.

In conclusion, Dr. McConnell was living testimony, faithful to Cleo & lifting the race. His work in the archival field, publishing on local history, advocating for change, participating in Trinity Presbyterian Church and teaching at Morgan synergized his career and inspired those who knew him. On May 11, 1939 Dr. McConnell stated:

In one respect institutions are a criteria of a civilization. No civilization can ever hope to become greater than its institutions….There is still a chance for you to advance civilization if you will but pick up the heritage and carry on.

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