Monroe Fordham: The Historian's Craft and the Training of a Historian
Thevenin, Rose C., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History
When one thinks of a historian, the immediate vision is of a man or woman wearing spectacles or glasses in an archive overwhelmed by old books, papers, artifacts and folders. He or she may be actively perusing old papers and documents often dismissed or abandoned by others. Each small page and oldest concrete material holds the potential for deciphering codes in the historian's mind to unearth a mystery or answer a pivotal question. Dr. Monroe Fordham, scholar, teacher, preservationist, has consistently reshaped the "immediate vision" of the historian whose domain extends far beyond the confines of an archive. Monroe Fordham was born in Parrott, Georgia in 1939 to a single mother, during a period of economic turmoil in American history characterized by transformative migratory patterns affecting American families.
African American families including his family experienced severe economic hardships in the South causing his cousins and other family members to migrate from Parrott, Georgia in search of better economic opportunities in the North. Although AfricanAmericans in particular were adversely affected by chronic unemployment, the exploitation of black labor through sharecropping in the South, Monroe Fordham was raised by doting grandparents who exemplified self-determination and agency by owning their own farm and a barn equipped with farm equipment. He experienced World War II as a child who noted the rationing of provisions and the determination of his elders to assure his education from the Helen Gurr School in Georgia to the Holden Street School, the "old" Jones High school and the "New" Jones High School in Orlando after he returned to his mother and his father's care in Orlando, Florida. Monroe Fordham excelled in sports especially basketball and track and field which provided an outlet for a college scholarship at Emporia State University.
After graduation, he taught for several years in the Wichita, Kansas public schools, became the Coordinator of Black Studies at Wichita State University and later relocated to Buffalo New York. He completed his Ph.D. degree at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1973 and began a long career at the State University College at Buffalo, first as a faculty member then as a Department Chair and historian whose multiple contributions ensured more than archival visits but generated volumes of work exploring and documenting the presence of American people through the sands of time. Dr. Fordham is a prime example of how historians can and do impact the world through the collection, preservation, publication and promotion of voluminous works. His teachings and scholarly contributions epitomize the historian's craft in the classroom and within the community at-large.
The resounding theme of his first book Major Themes in Northern Black Religious Thought 1800-1860 is the autonomy, resilience, and self-determination of African-Americans as they fought to ensure the continuity and stability of the black church. Although black religious institutions were plagued with the lack of financial resources combined with the limited education of black ministers from 1800-1860, they served as the cornerstone of local black communities and provided mechanisms through which constructive debates about freedom could occur. The centrality of the church was vital to the development of African American institutions and very important to the life and work of Dr. Monroe Fordham.
As a child he recalled attending church in wagons pulled by a team of mules with limited visits from preachers including fiery sermons delivered by his family members. Black churches often converted spaces to accommodate makeshift classes for teaching African-American students. Church members also donated their own resources for education which many perceived as liberation and an avenue for racial uplift. This aspect of Dr. Monroe Fordham' s childhood inspired him to collect and preserve the records of churches long forgotten and sites long abandoned in AfricanAmerican history. He amassed records from ten African-American churches in Buffalo and seven churches in Niagara Falls and generated microfilm versions for researchers. He also published the history of Bethel A.M.E Church in Buffalo New York in 1977 documenting the multiple contributions of the church and its members in the political, economic and social fabric of the Buffalo, New York community.
One of the collections attesting to his diligence is the Reverend Dr. J. Edward Nash Sr. (1868-1957) papers consisting of "approximately 140 linear feet of books and periodicals and over 50 linear feet of manuscript materials." He also collected and microfilmed the papers of Reverend Nash's wife Mrs. Frances Jackson Nash. This particular project is one of the many testaments of his collaboration with others and his principal role as a community leader and organizer. The Nash residence located at 36 Nash Street in Buffalo, New York served as a principal center of the African- American community.
The Nash family hosted guest including Booker T. Washington in 1910 and other visitors including Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr. The Nash papers documented the intellectual, religious and cultural life of the African-American community during Jim Crow segregation. Monroe Fordham collaborated with the Michigan Street Preservation Corporation of Buffalo, New York, the AfroAmerican Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, State University professors including graduate and undergraduate students including students from the African-American studies department at the State University of Buffalo. The main purpose of such collaboration was not only to collect and maintain historical records but to preserve, maintain and affirm the historical significance of the Nash house not only because of the famous people who visited there but for the principal role the home played in the politics, economics and social fabric of African- Americans in Buffalo.
Dr. Fordham conducted many oral interviews to carve a space for the symphony of voices unheard in the historiography of the African-American experience. As a historian, his craft required establishing one-on-one contact with the "living past" which I define as those whose personal, public and private experiences contain pertinent details to assist in historical research. Such individuals must also be considered primary sources of information because they convey and frame specific details within their historical experience. Dr. Monroe Fordham forged long-standing relationships with individuals, organizations, institutions in his role as a founding member of the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier Inc.
Dr. Fordham's intricate network included community organizations, local and national historical associations which all work together with the Monroe Fordham Center for Regional History established in his honor at the State University College at Buffalo in 2002. He worked diligently with community associations and local institutions as he simultaneously engaged in community outreach and the promotion of scholarly research. He interviewed local and national historical figures and collected various accounts including newspapers, journals, papers and other documents. His collection at the Monroe Fordham Regional History Center include vertical files on local businesses, historic buildings and landmarks including places of entertainment and leisure, organizations, institutions and residents. It also includes photographs and multimedia resources.
Dr. Fordham's preservation efforts can also be interpreted as indicative of his social and political activism as he reshaped dialogues about American life in New York by including the voices of those silenced by selective historical omissions in discourses examining, race, gender, and class, and labor, political, economic and social narratives of their lives. His greatest collaboration was that of his beloved wife "Freddie" (the former Freddie Mae Harris), his daughter Pamela Fordham and his granddaughter Tanisha Fordham who have assisted him over the years with multiple professional projects. The couple has been married since 1960 and are proud parents of three children and six grandchildren. As a freshman at the State University College at Buffalo, I had the privilege of witnessing a true scholar at work. His lectures exposed multiple images, literature and primary research materials about the African- American experience in America.
Dr. Fordham aptly cautioned that images alone merely represented one of a multitude of layers for probing the complexities of historical figures and organizations. He presented so many lectures on representations and definitions of identity prompting undergraduates to ask probing questions about gender roles, black radicalism and many other topics. Dr. Fordham always patiently answered questions but often added, "That's why you should become the historian to help us answer these questions." He always asserted that the historian must remain focused on the all -important task of gathering, evaluating and analyzing information without any unnecessary distractions.
The historian must remain disciplined, focused, committed and determined to engage in conversations about "our story" as a people and understand the overall impact individuals and groups have had on American history. Little did his students know at the time how he built a strong history program and how he crafted concentrations in African-American history for undergraduates. Dr. Fordham served in the history department of the State University College at Buffalo from 1970 until his retirement in 1998. He served as the department's chair for twelve years. He created and offered a series of courses including courses on African-American history and the civil rights movement of the 1960s in which he participated.
Dr. Fordham acknowledged feelings of "anxiety and restlessness" about the movement and about the increasing "militancy" of his peers and of high school students in his classes. He gave speeches, met with students and became involved with the Wichita Black United Front organized by the Wichita Urban League in 1968. He along with Herb Ruffin also counseled East High School students in their efforts to challenge the status quo. Although Dr. Fordham respected and admired the efforts of the youth during the civil rights movement, he decided to use the academic route to inspire and foster change.
He served as the Coordinator of Black Studies at Wichita State University in 1969 and worked with existing academic departments to identify existing courses for mergers into a core of Black Studies courses. He also proposed new courses and potential faculty hires including budgeting demands to staff the new courses. He successfully mastered the campus politics of Wichita State University and served as the institution's representative after students staged a sit-in of the administration building to demand a Black Studies program. His effective meeting with the students supplemented by his work plan for the implementation of the black studies program played a role in ending the sit-ins. Dr. Fordham never discussed his role throughout his courses, it was not until years later, the students would learn of his courageous actions and activism in the academy.
Dr. Fordham's office at the State University College at Buffalo became a haven for first generation college students, undeclared college majors, young college campus leaders and organizations. He was not always in the front of the scenes, but worked diligently with students as an on-campus advisor to strengthen many organizations and to help establish new student organizations. One example was the newly formed Caribbean Students Association formed in the college dormitories after group of students from his class met to discuss pertinent issues affecting the student body at the State University College at Buffalo.
Despite strong enthusiasm for the organization, Dr. Fordham reminded everyone, no work in his class would be accepted late because of organizational commitments and other campus-student related affairs. For students joining Greek letter organizations, he was especially firm with assertions that the work in his class will not be compromised in any way for any reason despite his membership in Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. His deep concern and commitment to students may have sprung from his own role as the elected student government President of his senior class 1961-1962 at Emporia State University. In addition to attending student sponsored on campus events, he also participated in various community events where he made numerous presentations on African-American history.
Dr. Fordham has persistently argued in his works that autobiographies, newspaper clippings and posters cannot be completely trusted to tell the complete story of any organization's leaders and individual members. He has contended throughout his professional career that a multitude of sources must be concurrently examined within a broader scope to trace gray ambiguous lines between fact, fiction, illusion, innuendo, implication and deduction. His article on Dr. E.E. Nelson, the founder of the Buffalo Cooperative Economic Society best exemplified his academic rigor. The article is based primarily on primary documents including organizational records, financial records, tax notes, personal items, oral interviews and church records to retrace Nelson's activities and document his contributions and struggles for autonomy. The biography framed Nelson's life within the contours of the economic, political and social structure within which he operated.
Such work was illustrative of his multiple contributions as the founder of the Journal of Afro-Americans in New York which he founded and has continued to publish and edit multiple volumes of the journal since 1977. I have attended conferences with Dr. Fordham as a graduate student as he enthusiastically scanned conference programs to select articles and scholars for inclusion in his journal. He was very discriminating, the only papers for inclusions had to be the ones whose topic or interpretation the general public had not heard before or which offered different or original ways of interpreting American history of New York. He authored numerous articles and book reviews in the journal. He was also the co-editor of the Oxford Family newsletter where he disseminated historical information and simultaneously promoted African American history in the state of New York.
In addition, he routinely extended invitations to his colleagues to critique ongoing research for publication in the journal. Long after his retirement from the State University College at Buffalo, Dr. Fordham scrutinized journals and articles and steadily reminded students that knowledge in our field will not suffice, historians must not only keep up with the historiography but they must also constantly engage in the preservation of the historian's craft. Dr. Fordham always asserted that organizations and individuals do not exist in a vacuum; he conclusively argued that historical, political and social factors must be probed to shed light on organizations local and national leaders.
Since completing his PhD in 1973, Dr. Fordham has published in dozens of historical journals, edited and collaborated with many scholars. He has always been and remains very modest about his contributions, perhaps it is because he reflects most often on the quality not the quantity of voluminous works about historical experiences. A scholar can always produce many books but it is the substance of these works and the role that each chapter, each paragraph and footnote plays in discourses about the human experience which really matter most. Dr. Fordham was not interested in the number of pages of any study or research paper by his students or his colleagues. He was only concerned about what was said and how the historical evidence substantiated, reinforced or even refuted assertions. His main concern was only for the historian's craft in asserting how each "fact" makes up the substance of the historical experience. For Dr. Fordham, the greatness of a historian does not lie with the numbers but how ongoing engagements within the historian's craft molded and fostered spaces for academic inquiry and rigor.
Letters, notes, receipts and/or other materials must be questioned and re-examined for authenticity. I remember finding a letter by an alleged member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) established in Oakland in 1966 which was considered a "radical" organization. The letter was supposedly submitted by the organization to a store owner which the organization deemed an "avaricious businessman." This letter could not be authenticated because its ominous, threatening tone raised suspicions that it may have been fabricated during the height of counterintelligence (COINTELPRO) repression by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other local and national authorities. Dr. Fordham cautioned that this letter could not be casually discarded because while it may be considered " junk" or a painful reminder to many who personally experienced COINTELPRO, it was indeed a gold mine of information.
He viewed it as a historical instrument to shed light on the strength, weakness and overall effectiveness of both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the BPP as an organization. On the one hand if written by the FBI, it demonstrated deliberate attempts to fracture BPP support. If written by the BPP it could have been an attempt by the organization to mobilize community support. The task for the historian was to conserve this piece of history which can be examined within a wider frame of historical analysis. He reminded me yet again that all written documents must be approached with caution.
In 2001 , he received the honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree by the State University of New York. Such an award was a testament of his contributions to the university system in New York State. He also received numerous other notable awards including the Emporia State University Outstanding Alumni Award in 1993, the Carter G. Woodson Scholars Medallion from the Association for the Study of African- American Life and History (ASALH) in 2005. Very few students have the privilege of learning from the one of the very best in their field. I am so very thankful for the trailblazer who laid a path for many others to follow and practice Dr. Monroe Fordham's historian's craft.
Many who have been in his presence were persuaded to engage in the discussions and debates about our place as a people and as a community from Dr. Monroe Fordham's lectures. He always encouraged questions and simultaneously urged, "That's why we need you to become a historian to help us to better understand and answer your questions." In 1999, many of his former students and colleagues reunited in Buffalo, New York to discuss our work. As his former undergraduate student, I returned to the State University College at Buffalo State as a graduate student of history in 1999. Dr. Fordham, mere words cannot express my thanks for your courage, your dedication and commitment to American history. As a scholar and mentor, you have in my humble estimation mastered the historian's craft and your everlasting impact will forever shape the course of New York Life and History and African American historiography. You are indeed the epitome of poet Claude McKay's "stronger soul within a finer frame."…
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Publication information: Article title: Monroe Fordham: The Historian's Craft and the Training of a Historian. Contributors: Thevenin, Rose C. - Author. Journal title: Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. Volume: 35. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2011. Page number: 19+. © 2007 Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, Inc. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.