Monroe Fordham: The Historian's Craft and the Training of a Historian

By Thevenin, Rose C. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

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. …

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