Students discover history through archiving Jan Term course

By Roxanne Fleischer

There is nothing like missing a deadline by several months and still accomplishing the mission. Dr. Bryn Upton of the history department knows this first hand.

While most Jan Term classes are approved the spring semester before they occur, the class “Advanced Research in a Private Collection” was not even proposed until September when a large, heavy-duty suitcase showed up at McDaniel College.

The suitcase contained articles, meeting notes, and photographs, collected by the late Morris Rannels, the superintendent of public schools in Cecil County from 1952 to 1960. A 12 to 15 page explanation and recollection of the events from his time as superintendent was also included.

This was the “private collection” that Jan Term students signed up to do advanced research in, and while these little known man’s documents may seem meaningless at first, the story becomes more interesting when we look at the time period.

In 1954, the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Ed determined that separate schools were not equal. Because Rannels was a school superintendent during this time, the documents, containing his notes on the progress of desegregation and the work on the schools, become instantaneously intriguing, and this is why both Provost Don Faulkner and the curriculum committee approved the proposal for the class on such a short notice.

“It was a unique opportunity, an educational and beneficial class for both students and faculty,” said Upton, who received the suitcase from Margaret Trader, the visiting associate professor of education at McDaniel. Trader had in turn received it from a man named Owen Crabb who was a friend and correspondent of Rannels. Rannels had asked Crabb to help him find a place to donate the collection to. Only one day before the suitcase was handed over to McDaniel, Rannels passed away.

As McDaniel College ended up with the collection, a group of ten students over Jan Term received credit for archiving the collection.

“When [Dr. Upton] opened the suitcase we just saw stacks of papers and scrapbooks, as well as loose newspaper articles and random invitations. It was a little scary and it felt like we would never be able to get through it all…but we took the divide and conquer approach to it, and managed to get through all the material in less than two weeks,” said Kim Staub, ’09, a history major.

The students created scope notes and a finding aid to help researchers use the archive. They also went through the documents and organized them for easy reference.

“[The students] put their detective hats on,” Upton said. “It’s one of those things you hope for -students to jump in head first.”

“The hands-on setting was priceless,” said Brittany Maffei,’08. “I was responsible for looking through the miscellaneous items. Among them, I had a school building survey from 1948…It was put together to give Cecil County an idea of what schools needed additions, which ones needed general improvements, and which ones were so poor and run down that they were recommended to be abandoned immediately…nothing was even considered until Mr. Rannels found the document 4 years later.”

The students were required also to write a paper on their experience and what they thought historians could gain from the archives they had put so much time into putting together.

“As a history major, the archives are where the information is and using them is a necessary skill. The experience made me feel much less intimidated about doing research … I know that I will use what I learned in this class in the rest of my time here and even in my career,” said Staub.

On the last day of class, nine boxes of carefully organized documents were carried from Hill Hall to Hoover Library. “This was something that [Rannels] took time to do. It will make his family happy to know that [his work] will be preserved for others to look at and learn from,” said Upton.