Emory mourns sudden passing of Rose Library curator Pellom McDaniels

By Maureen McGavin and Laura Douglas-Brown | Emory Report | April 20, 2020

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Pellom McDaniels III, curator of African American collections, passed away suddenly April 19. McDaniels, who earned his PhD at Emory after a career in the NFL, is remembered for “his life’s work to elevate and celebrate African American history.”

The Emory community is mourning the loss of Pellom McDaniels III, curator of African American collections at the university’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, who passed away suddenly at his home on Sunday, April 19, at age 52.

McDaniels earned both his master of arts and PhD in American Studies from Emory’s Institute of Liberal Arts, after a career as a National Football League defensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons. He then joined the University of Missouri-Kansas City as an assistant professor in history.

McDaniels returned to Emory as an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies in Emory College and the associate curator of African American collections for the Rose Library, becoming the full-time curator in 2018.

“The depth of our sorrow and grief at Pellom’s passing is matched only by our boundless appreciation and admiration for the tremendous gifts and contributions Pellom brought to his life’s work to elevate and celebrate African American history,” says Rose Library director Jennifer Gunter King. “The Rose Library and the world have lost a giant of a scholar and friend. Pellom’s vision is well established and will continue to guide the future of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.”

One of the major exhibitions of Rose materials he curated was “Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism, and Archives of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch,” which opened in Emory’s Woodruff Library in September 2016. It featured materials from the Billops-Hatch Archive at Rose, which is known as one of the premier collections of African American history in visual and performing arts. 

McDaniels, who was passionate about taking the Rose collections out into the community, helped lead an effort to launch the library’s traveling exhibit program into the Atlanta community schools. The program debuted in 2019 at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and opened in its second location, Drew Charter School, this year.

He was also an artist and the author of several books, including “Porter, Steward, Citizen: An African American’s Memoir of World War I” (2017) and “The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy” (2013). 

“Pellom was an amazing colleague and friend with a drive to look for new ways to provide access to the wonderful collections in the Rose Library,” Dean and University Librarian Yolanda Cooper says. “I will miss his energy, his ideas and his beautiful heart. His contributions and service to the university and the community are inspiring.” 

Randall K. Burkett, Rose Library retired curator of African American collections, first hired McDaniels as his doctoral student assistant in what was then the Woodruff Library’s Special Collections department. Burkett sought him out again years later to become the associate curator of African American collections of the Rose Library. 

“I am devastated by the passing of our beloved friend and colleague, Pellom McDaniels,” Burkett says. “Pellom was a giant of a man, not only in stature but in talent, in intellect and in energy. His loss will be deeply felt throughout the university and the Atlanta community. We were fortunate to have had him with us, but for much too short a time.”

Rosemary Magee, retired director of the Rose Library and a 2019 senior fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, worked with McDaniels at the Rose and says she had recently been collaborating with him on a project involving artist Benny Andrews and Southern writer Flannery O’Connor.

“Pellom McDaniels was a teacher first and foremost,” Magee notes. “He taught all of us, his colleagues as well as his students, about the importance of history, of archives, of stories, of art. I’ve never seen Pellom hesitate for a second when there was an opportunity to bring something new to light, to make important things happen, to show us a way forward.

“This is the meaning of Pellom’s life among us: to create, to move, to offer insight as well as change. And now, this is our shared responsibility: to move forward with him in spirit.”

From athlete to scholar

McDaniels began his academic and athletic career at Oregon State University, where he was a football player and speech communication major. He earned accolades as a defensive lineman for the OSU Beavers, served as president of his fraternity, helped organize the school’s first vigil honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and graduated in just three years.

In 2015, he was honored by the NCAA with its Silver Anniversary Award, presented to former student-athletes 25 years after the end of their college athletic careers to celebrate achievements since graduation. 

“On the one hand, I never expect to receive awards for the work I do in the community. I feel that being of service is part of being a citizen and a community member. At the same time, it’s nice to have people acknowledge your contributions,” McDaniels said at the time. “I never expected the kind of recognition that the Silver Anniversary Awards represents. It was a very pleasant surprise that is greatly appreciated.”

After first playing for the Birmingham Fire in the World League of American Football, McDaniels moved to the NFL where he played for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Falcons. While playing professional football, he also found time to start two nonprofit organizations: the Arts for Smarts Foundation and the Fish Out of Water Writing Club, both geared toward elementary and middle school students.

His nine-year NFL career came to an abrupt end in early 2000, when he was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs, the result of deeply bruised ribs and a long flight from Japan, where the Falcons played against the Dallas Cowboys in the Tokyo Bowl. 

McDaniels considered a career in business, having already created and patented a dental lubricant, but knew he wanted to keep learning.

“When I decided to retire from the NFL, I already had a business selling my dental product, Dr. Brizzly. But I realized that I was limiting my opportunities to pursue anything intellectual,” he recalled in a 2013 interview. “I would be so far into my company and its daily requirements that it was going to be difficult to step off of the path I was on. I also had the option of going into broadcasting, which I had cultivated in Kansas City, where I hosted a cable talk show and was a color commentator for Friday night football. However, I still had questions related to why black males pursued sports to the ends that we have assumed to be common among the group.”     

While attending an event at Emory featuring scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., he met Rudolph Byrd, who served as Emory’s Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies (Byrd passed away in 2011). Byrd told him about Emory’s graduate program in the Institute for Liberal Arts.

“Because I was on injured reserve for the Falcons, on blood thinners and had a lot of time, I had the opportunity to spend an extraordinary amount of time reading and beginning preparing for GRE,” McDaniels said then. “I applied to the program and once I learned I was accepted, my path as an academic was set.” 

Community connections

McDaniels earned his PhD at Emory in 2007 with a dissertation investigating the influence of race, class and sports participation in African American masculine identity. He then joined the Emory faculty in 2012, after serving as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“Through my participation in sports as an athlete and my scholarly interest in the history of sports in the African American community, I recognized the significance sport has played throughout American history, especially for African Americans in pursuit of equal opportunities for social mobility, political power and economic stability,” he noted in 2015.

He continued to focus his scholarly research on race and sports, as well as African Americans and World War I, 19th and 20th century ideas about black masculinity, the intersection of sports and civil rights and the politics of representation in African American art.

And throughout his academic career, McDaniels sought to build bridges between scholars and the communities they study, conducting research and curating exhibits that had a direct impact far beyond the walls of the university. 

Take, for example, his work on Isaac Murphy, the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times. The son of slaves who rose to become one of the most successful jockeys in horse racing history, Murphy had largely faded from view until McDaniels published the biography “The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy” in 2013.

In 2015, the city of Lexington, Kentucky, honored Murphy with a week-long series of events including the unveiling of a new headstone for his grave at the Kentucky Horse Park, theater performances, the dedication of a monument to the Murphy family and talks by McDaniels about his research.

“I would like to believe that my research on Murphy and the Lexington community has served as a catalyst to bring people together to rediscover their collective history,” McDaniels said in an interview at the time.

The same is true of the exhibits he curated for the Rose Library. “Still Raising Hell,” drawn from the Camille J. Billops and James V. Hatch archives, explored themes related to creativity, social justice and community, art and activism, and the importance of history and memory. 

But the impact didn’t end when the exhibition in Emory’s Woodruff Library closed in 2016. McDaniels was part of a team that created a traveling version called “Speak What Must Be Spoken” designed to inspire young viewers.

“Exhibits and installations such as this allow students, parents and members of the community to benefit from the bounty of resources available at the Stuart A. Rose Library,” McDaniels noted when the exhibit debuted at Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in early 2019. “Most importantly, through community partnerships like this one, everyone benefits, especially our children.”

As Emory Libraries’ first traveling exhibit, “Speak What Must Be Spoken” reflects the Rose Library’s commitment to bring its archives out into the community.

“One of our goals is to create more points of access to the unique and rare materials in the Rose Library for the larger Atlanta community,” McDaniels explained. “It’s one thing for us to make research materials available for our students and faculty and outside researchers. It’s another thing to interpret documents, photographs and ephemera in ways that inform a public that’s hungry for these kinds of experiences.”

McDaniels is survived by his wife, Navvab McDaniels; daughter, Sofia; and son, Ellington.