Monroe Fordham: An Appreciation

By Smith, E. O. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Monroe Fordham: An Appreciation

Smith, E. O., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

Monroe presented a quiet modest demeanor when he first arrived in the history department. There was with him, affability and a decency which marked his relations with his colleagues from the beginning of his tenure to his retirement. There was with him, professionalism, and a determination to be a first rate historian which led him to think through, and carry out a professional plan that affected his scholarly activity, his teaching priorities, and his community service. It was clear from the beginning that he had determined to devote his professional carrier to the preservation and promulgation of African-American history as seen, as lived and as preserved on the local level. For thirty-some years, he preserved, catalogued, microfilmed, and archive materials that represented key agencies, institutions as well as individuals in the African-American community of Western New York. Organizations such as the NAACP, H.O.M.E., the Colored Musician's Club, and various papers of prominent African-American leaders form the core of what became the Monroe Fordham African American local history project.

Colleagues often asked "Why this emphasis on local history?" To which, Fordham responded that to understand AfroAmerican history on the national level, it was important to have an understanding and basis on the local level. Fordham, often suggested that too many generalizations were made by historians without adequate knowledge of local conditions and documentation. The interrelationship between national and local historical forces became a strong factor in Fordham's philosophy of history. This is an approach which he shared with his colleagues, students, and community groups. Hence, he made sure that these treasures of local history were deposited at E.H. Butler library, so that the entire academic community could access them. To share these resources with the Buffalo community, he simultaneously deposited historical materials in the Jefferson Avenue public library branch that is now known as the Merriweather Library.

Monroe had a special interest in local church history, such that he involved interested colleagues: Jim McDonnell John Aiken, Nuala Drescher and E.O. Smith in his efforts to preserve that history. He involved us in seminars for congregations such as the Edison Street Baptist Church and the Ripley United Methodist Church. He involved us with these congregations to help them in preserving their histories. The result of those efforts with colleagues has meant that the preserved records are still being accessed by researchers and members of the community. We can all remember his dedicated work on the history of Bethel A.M.E. Church. His interests in the history of local churches, whether black or white, affirmed his commitment to that proposition that local history was the basis for genuine historical study. Here we see that blend of localism and nationalism, that illustrates the richness of African American history in his work.

He published a book Major Themes in Northern Black Religious Thought, 1975. This book was published by Exposition Press, which had a series of African American studies for new aspiring authors. To many, Exposition Press was referred to as a "Vanity Press". The nationally known authority on African American history, John Hope Franklin, had encouraged young scholars like Fordham to publish in this series for African Americans. Some of our local department members thought such a publication with Exposition Press was inappropriate for scholarly work. This internal department squabble, brought out in Fordham, a determination to tell the story of his people regardless of what department colleagues, or the institution at large thought of this presentation. Subsequent reviews of the work of course, underscored the soundness of his research and the excellence of his conclusions.

His commitment to the serious academic study of the AfroAmerican experience was to be seen in his development of courses in that area offered by the history department. …

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