Connor, Robert Digges Wimberly, 1878-1950

Alternative names
Birth 1878-09-26
Death 1950-02-25

Biographical notes:

Educator, historian, secretary of the North Carolina Historical Commission, University of North Carolina professor, first archivist of the United States, and author of numerous books and articles on North Carolina history.

From the description of R. D. W. Connor papers, 1890-1950 [manuscript]. (Oceanside Free Library). WorldCat record id: 26319525

Robert Digges Wimberly Connor (26 September 1878 - 25 February 1950) was born in Wilson, North Carolina, one of twelve children of Henry Groves Connor (1852 - 1924) and Katherine Whitfield Connor (d. 1924). His father was a North Carolina state senator, a judge of the state Superior Court, an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, and, finally, a federal judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Among Robert D. W. Connor's nine siblings who lived to maturity were two brothers with whom he kept in touch through correspondence: his brother George W. Connor was a lawyer, representative in the state legislature, and a state Superior and Supreme Court judge; his brother Henry Groves Connor, Jr., ( Tobe ) was also a lawyer and state representative. The remaining brothers and sisters were David Connor, Kate Connor Murray, Mary Groves Connor MacNair, Margaret C. Simpson, Fred Connor, and Louis Connor.

Educated in the Wilson public schools, Connor attended the University of North Carolina, where he was active in student publications. He was graduated in 1899 with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree. His ambition was to attend Johns Hopkins University to study history, but a shortage of funds led him to take a job teaching English in the Winston-Salem public schools, 1899-1901. There he met fellow-teacher Sadie Hanes (1879-1951), daughter of Philip Hanes (d. 1903) and Sallie C. Booe Hanes (d. 1927) of Winston and Mocksville.

In 1902, Connor became superintendent of the Oxford Graded Schools and then principal of Wilmington High School. He and Sadie Hanes married on 23 December 1902. During this time, Connor began writing historical sketches for various North Carolina newspapers. In 1904, he left Wilmington for Raleigh to become head of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction's Educational Campaign Committee. At the same time (1903-1907), he was serving as the unpaid secretary of the North Carolina Historical Commission, leading a movement to preserve North Carolina's historical papers and establish a state archives. By 1907, due in part to his public campaign, Connor received a $5000 appropriation and a table in the lobby of the Senate chamber for an office. He began assembling and organizing an archives, and this became his full-time job, 1907-1920. During that time, he managed to get a more than five-fold increase in the operating budget, established the archives in a new building, secured 312 private collections, preserved the old records of the executive and legislative branches of the government, created a central depository for the historic official records of forty-seven counties, and established a Hall of History for the state. He was also secretary of the North Carolina Teachers' Assembly, 1906-1912.

In 1912, Connor was president of the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association and continued as secretary of the association, 1913-1920. Connor became a trustee of the University of North Carolina in 1913 and was secretary of the Board of Trustees, 1914-1920. He served an additional function for his alma mater, 1917-1921, as president of the General Alumni Association. He also served on the National Board for Historical Service in 1917.

During his time as secretary of the North Carolina Historical Commission, Connor was actively publishing his writing on North Carolina history, which included both textbooks for public schools and monographs. For his book on Cornelius Harnett, he won the Patterson Memorial Cup in 1911.

Connor kept close ties with the University of North Carolina and was in touch with other trustees, faculty, and the administration. Connor was active in the negotiations that resulted in Edward Kidder Graham replacing Francis Preston Venable as president in 1913; and when Graham suddenly died in 1918, Connor's name was put forward as a possible successor. However, the head of the faculty, Harry Woodburn Chase, was appointed. From that time on, Connor, at the urging of supporters like J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton (University of North Carolina professor of history), began to plan to join the history faculty at the university. In 1920, he took a leave of absence from the North Carolina Historical Commission to study history at Columbia University under William A. Dunning. He resigned from the Board of Trustees to accept an appointment in 1921 as Kenan Professor of History and Government at the University of North Carolina. He held this position until 1934, with brief sojourns to England in 1922; the University of Chicago summer school in 1928, 1929, and 1931; England again in 1931-1932; the University of Colorado summer school in 1933; and the University of West Virginia in the summer of 1934.

In 1929, Connor published his major work, North Carolina; Rebuilding an Ancient Commonwealth, 1584-1925 . When the presidency of the University of North Carolina became vacant in 1930, Connor was again considered for the job, which this time went to Frank Porter Graham. Connor briefly considered the presidency of Rutgers in 1931 but stayed at University of North Carolina when Graham offered him a fifty-percent increase in salary and a year of paid leave to do research on North Carolina historical sources in England.

In 1934, Connor did leave the university to become the first archivist of the United States. Support from the American Historical Association and J. Franklin Jameson (head of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress and a long-time advocate of a national archives), along with his strong Democratic credentials, won him the appointment from Franklin D. Roosevelt. While archivist, Connor also helped Roosevelt set up the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York.

Connor resigned as archivist in 1941 to return to the University of North Carolina as Burton Craige Professor of Jurisprudence and History, a position he held until retirement in 1949. In 1942 and 1943, he was president of the Society of American Archivists and chairman of the North Carolina Historical Commission. The Commission became the Department of Archives and History in 1943, with Connor serving on its executive board until his death. As chairman of the board, Connor oversaw the publication of a history of the Commission in 1943. He also worked on a documentary history of the University of North Carolina, the first two volumes of which were published posthumously in 1953.

Connor's health began to decline in the 1940s. His convalescence from an April 1945 operation for stomach ulcers was slow. However, he continued to teach until 1948 and worked on his documentary history full-time in 1949. In February 1950, he died in Watts Hospital, Durham, North Carolina, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.

From the guide to the R. D. W. Connor Papers, ., 1890-1950, (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library. Southern Historical Collection.)


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