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R. D. W. Connor
R. D. W. CONNOR (1878-1950)
First Secretary, N.C. Historical Commission
First Archivist of the United States, 1934-1941

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Notable People and Topics in Our History . . .

R. D. W. Connor: Setting the Professional Standard

R obert Digges Wimberly Connor, the fourth of twelve children, was born in Wilson on September 26, 1878, to Henry Groves and Kate Whitfield Connor. He completed his public education in the Wilson County schools and went on to the University of North Carolina (UNC), from which he graduated in 1899. Ambitious and industrious even then, Connor during his senior year at UNC served as editor of all three of the university's student publications—the newspaper, the yearbook, and the literary magazine. Following graduation Connor taught in the public schools in Winston and Wilmington and served in school administration in Wilmington and Oxford. It was during his employment in Winston that he met and married Sadie Hanes of Mocksville, a teacher. While in Wilmington in 1903, Connor accepted an appointment to the newly formed North Carolina Historical Commission. He worked for four years as the unpaid secretary of the commission while gainfully employed in the public schools or with the Department of Public Instruction, promoting public education through speeches and articles, proving his ability to perform varied and complex jobs simultaneously.

In 1906 Connor accepted a salaried position with the Historical Commission, and his stalwart leadership and investigative mind guided the agency through its early years. In particular he recognized the importance of a state archival program. With the Historical Commission firmly established in 1920, Connor pursued graduate studies at Columbia University in preparation for returning to his alma mater to teach. In 1921 he tendered his resignation to accept the Kenan Professorship in History and Government at UNC. While in that post, his contributions to the archival profession were brought to the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. With confirmation of both Connor's Democratic loyalties and professional reputation, Roosevelt appointed Connor as the first Archivist of the United States in 1934. Once again Connor found himself having to build an archival program from the ground up. He successfully educated the Washington bureaucrats about the need for proper records management and justified the urgency for protecting records of archival quality. He remained Archivist of the United States until 1941, when he gave in to his first love and returned to teach history in Chapel Hill.

Connor's devotion to the North Carolina Historical Commission and later the Executive Board of what was then the Department of Archives and History continued, as he held tenure as a member and later chairman until his death in 1950. Similarly, he served his beloved UNC as secretary to its Board of Trustees, president of its General Alumni Association, and head of its Department of History and Government. In the midst of World War II, in an address he delivered after being sworn in as president of the Society of American Archivists, R. D. W. Connor defined the role of archivists and all public historians when he said: "We are the custodians of the accumulated evidences of those traditions and ideals of democracy and freedom for which we fight and without which . . . no such peace can be established or maintained in the world."

Ansley Herring Wegner
Research Branch

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