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Making Connections: Exploring African American history and the UD Community

By Heidi Gauder and Kristina Schulz

For this spring semester, the library mini-course UDI 204 — This is UD: Archival and Primary Source Research — altered its focus to include the broader Dayton African American community. As a follow-up to the discovery of racist admission practices on campus, we wanted to dig deeper into the African American story on the University of Dayton campus and in the city of Dayton. Students not only learned research techniques to help them investigate the past, but also analyzed primary source materials that connected to the experiences of African American people at UD and in Dayton during the first half of the 20th century. At the end of the semester, students wrapped up their research projects with poster presentations.

Each student selected an object — such as a letter, photograph, yearbook, newspaper article, scrapbook or atlas — and examined that object or a part of it to understand its relevance and contribution to history. This task proved easier for some objects. It is clearer what the Dayton chapter of Ku Klux Klan means for history than trying to provide historical context for undated photographs of African American students in a home economics department scrapbook.

Nonetheless, the students quickly understood the task and conducted research to explore each artifact’s meaning. Posters created by Emily Cordonnier and Thomas Broschart are now available for viewing in eCommons.

Student projects looked into the following items:

  • Jourdon Anderson’s satirical 1865 work “Letter from a Freedman to His Old Master”: This letter facilitated an investigation into how and why Anderson and his family arrived in Dayton from Tennessee. Census records indicate that Anderson and his family lived not far from campus on what is now Burns Avenue.
  • Department of Home Economics scrapbook: This scrapbook documented the activities of the department and showcased student work. One photograph shows a dinner with several home economics students and Father Charles Collins, S.M., vice president and dean in the 1940s. The project examined the experience of African American women in home economics programs in the 20th century.
  • A photograph of a Klan rally (lent by Dayton History): This was the starting point of research on how Klan activity in the 1920s affected the University of Dayton. 
  • 1946 Daytonian: Emmet Campbell and Robert McClearin were the first African American football players at UD. They made their start in UD Athletics in the 1945 season. The team photograph is found on page 71 of the student yearbook.
  • 1947 Daytonian: An article in the student newspaper on an incident of off-campus discrimination led to an exploration of the Interracial Club, which was formed in 1944. Sociology professor Edward Huth was the club’s adviser. The club is pictured in the yearbook on Page 94. 
  • A 1938 newspaper article on the firebombing of the C.J. McLin family home, which was also his funeral business: This article helped shed light on civil rights efforts in Dayton in the 1930s; it brought to students' attention that the work for civil rights didn't just take place in the South at lunch counters and on buses; people were actively organizing decades before that. McLin was a vocal proponent of civil rights at the time and worked the rest of his life to promote it. 
  • Photographs of two Dayton churches: The Wayman Chapel AME Church and Bethel Missionary Baptist Church have been mainstays in Dayton's African American community since the 19th century. The photos were a starting point for an exploration of how these churches served the community.
  • A map of Ward 8 in the 1875 Combination Atlas of Montgomery County, Ohio: This map was the basis for learning more about Emmanuel Catholic Church on Franklin Street in Dayton and its connections to the community.
  • Two letters about the Dayton Public Schools: One was written in 1932 and the other in 1945; both were found in the W.E.B. Du Bois Papers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Student reflections

Students also wrote reflections about their course experiences in relation to the research project. Thomas Broschart, a religious studies and theology major, spoke about historical empathy, a course topic: “Just taking a small part of the history of the city in the form of the atlas and expanding it to show the humanity of the past is important to my research project. Although all the things I learned from class helped me grow in my research skills and helped me in this project, this historical empathy was always on my mind when researching.” 

Other students recognized gaps in history and how this course sought to begin to close such gaps at the local level. Emily Hytla, a communications major, wrote, “Reflecting on this class has helped me realize my own biases as well as other people that research our history. Consistently, people of different races, orientations, sexualities, etc. are left out of our common history practice.”

Adam Graber, a history major who researched two local churches, remarked, “History is a beautiful thing, in many ways, and offers an avenue for the truth to be heard, spoken through the voices of those who might otherwise never have been able to speak their voice.”

Another student, communications major Thomas Lofaro, appreciated the visit to the University Archives: “One of my favorite class periods was when the class went to the campus archives and examined a number of very interesting artifacts that had to deal with the University of Dayton and its rich history. … I feel that more students on UD’s campus should visit the archives in order to gain the perspective I gained during the semester.” 

Madeline Nosek, also a communications major, framed her experience this way: “Going into this project and semester as a whole, I did not have any knowledge on what the African American student experience was like at the University of Dayton. For me, it never really crossed my mind, which I believe is a privilege in itself.”

Faculty reflections

As instructors who taught this course from a new perspective while adjusting to pandemic conditions, we too found that we had much to learn about our University’s and city’s histories. We were able to share stories that we hadn’t known about previously, and we now realize that we have more work to do in order to help students learn about the rich history that surrounds us.

— Heidi Gauder is a professor and coordinator of research and instruction in the University Libraries. Kristina Schulz is the University archivist.

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