Hands-on history

January 29, 2008

It arrived in a large black Samsonite suitcase. It contained what students call treasure: Newspaper clippings, minutes from school-board meetings, photos and files documenting the turbulent years of school integration in Maryland. The stack of yellowed and faded pages were painstakingly collected and donated by Morris Rannels, the superintendent of schools for Cecil County from 1952-1960.

And now, a group of students in the Jan Term course “Advanced Research in Private Collection” is dissecting the archival materials. Each student sorts, categorizes and analyzes a stack of documents on subjects ranging from droll day-to-day business to the dramatic.

“It’s neat to have history in your hands,” says Kim Staub ’09. “This is valuable for me because it makes me think ‘Do I want to look at dusty old paper the rest of my life?’ And I think I do.”

Included in the material were stories like the one about a mother who attacked a principal because she was upset that her child was paddled. Another describes how Rannels turned away a group of black elementary students from a white school. The students’ families later filed a lawsuit that helped pave the way for desegregation in Maryland.

Although at first he resisted desegregation, the documents Rannels collected showed how he went on to support it after the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education.

“Rannels supported integration but he didn’t want to rock the boat,” says History major Victoria Childs ’09. “He must have had many nights where he didn’t sleep.”

So, how did this package end up in the hands of Jan Term students? Rannels, who retired in 1978 and did not graduate from McDaniel, contacted a friend about donating the suitcase. The friend knew Visiting Associate Professor of Education Margaret Trader.

The agreement was made. The package was sent. And the day before the suitcase arrived on the Hill, Rannels passed away.

“He always thought there was a story to be told in what he collected,” says Bryn Upton, assistant professor of History. “We want to do right by him and look through his documents, as he wanted.”

History major April Curley ’08 is jotting down names as she reads through pages of newspaper articles. There aren’t too many descriptions of African Americans in the stack, and Curley, who wants to become a civil-liberties attorney, plans to later uncover the lives of those whose stories are so far untold.

“When I enter a doctoral program, I’m going to need to be able to perform complex research,” she says. “Where better to start than with this?”

The documents, along with a historical summary prepared by the class, will be preserved in the College’s archive.