Pellom McDaniels III./Courtesy of Emory Photo

Pellom McDaniels III, the curator of African American collections at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library who devoted his life to documenting black history, died suddenly from natural causes in his home on the morning of April 19. He was 52.

McDaniels accomplished milestones that people often spend lifetimes to reach — in his time he was a prolific author, a professional athlete, a professor and a curator of a signature collection. Beyond his achievements, McDaniels was earnest, intellectually curious and a genuine family man to his core. 

McDaniels, who found success as an NFL defensive lineman prior to his career in academia, is remembered among family and colleagues for his unrivaled commitment to his goals and compassion for the lessons of history. 

His desire to chronicle the lives of those in the black community, from the experiences of African American soldiers in the Civil War to the integration of black baseball players and legacy of black artists, spurred from his belief in keeping history alive.

“He was someone who deeply cared about the African American community, sharing its history and its stories and making sure that people were never forgotten,” said his wife, Navvab McDaniels. “He never wanted anyone’s story to be forgotten, and he worked so hard to make sure that everyone’s stories were told … This was why he got up in the morning to do this work.”

His colleagues have mourned the loss of a historian and curator who exhibited an unparalleled curiosity and creativity for developing new mediums to communicate African American history. 

Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies Carol Anderson, who met McDaniels when he was an associate curator, noted the gravity of his work as a scholar and the profound contributions he made to the University’s vast collections of documents, artifacts and ephemera related to African American history and culture.

“Part of his vision was not only the strength of that collection — it is one of the strongest in the nation — but it was also how to take those incredible jewels that are there and make them available to a wider audience that would be hungry for that kind of information,” Anderson said. “The information about the struggle for voting rights, the information about the struggle to end slavery in the United States, the information about the vast, deep, cultural richness coming out of Alice Walker and Langston Hughes. It was that kind vision that he consistently brought … He always thought in the terms of ‘us’ or ‘we’, and that is a rare gift.”

As the curator of the Rose Library’s signature collection, McDaniels was constantly traveling the country to gather new materials and was also dedicated  to showcasing the collection to greater Atlanta through community exhibits. Jimmy Carter Professor of History Joseph Crespino noted that despite the vast amount of time and work needed to maintain the physical collection, McDaniels continued to produce his own written scholarship, including a book about African Americans in World War I and a biography of one of the first African American jockeys. 

Most recently, McDaniels helped create the Rose Library’s Lift Every Voice 2020 initiative which aims to analyze the American identity through the lens of the Reconstruction era.

“I hope that people will take up that torch and that there will be scholars that come behind him because he could have done so much more and he wanted to do more; he had lots of plans,” Navvab McDaniels said. 

Crespino, who shared many intellectual interests in African American history, said he was in the midst of working with McDaniels on an exhibit featuring the work of novelist Flannery O’Connor and painter Benny Andrews that was scheduled to open a year from now. “He had such creativity and broad interests in the whole of the African American experience and the way it fit in with the American experience,” Crespino said.

McDaniels, who grew up in San Jose, California, received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Oregon State University (OSU) in 1990, where he was also a defensive lineman for the school’s football team and served as team captain his senior year. In 2015, he received the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award, which celebrates the career achievements of student-athletes 25 years after the end of their collegiate careers.

Upon graduation, McDaniels expected to be drafted into the NFL but never received an offer on draft night. He worked as a salesman for Procter & Gamble Co. for a brief period of time but quickly returned to pursuing his dream of playing professional sports.

While watching an NFL game with a colleague at a work conference, McDaniels saw a player he had once competed against in college. His colleague asked him if he ever wanted to play in the NFL, to which he responded that he thought about it all the time.

“The [colleague] said to him, ‘But if you were really good enough, don’t you think you would still be playing?’ and Pellom said that statement really impacted him,” Navvab McDaniels recalled. “And he said, ‘I am good enough.’

McDaniels tried out for the Birmingham Fire, which was part of the now-defunct World League of American Football, where he was signed and played for two seasons. He then played for the Philadelphia Eagles for a season before joining the Kansas City Chiefs in 1992, where he would remain as a backup defensive lineman until 1998. 

McDaniels first met his wife when she was a senior at OSU and he was returning to his alma mater to help host a black history event, after which the two talked on and off over the phone for the next two years. The couple had their first date while Navvab McDaniels was studying at the Rollins School of Public Health and Pellom McDaniels, who was playing for the Kansas City Chiefs at the time, came to Atlanta to play against the Falcons. 

After a series of injuries concluded McDaniels’ professional football career in 2000, he began exploring an entirely new path in academia, a career that always interested him and set him apart from his teammates.

“It was a pretty challenging transition,” Navvab McDaniels said. “He called himself a fish out of water in the locker room because he had always been an intellectual so he was writing poetry and short stories and doing art as he was playing professional sports — he was a little bit different from everyone. When he came here to Atlanta we started looking into a PhD program for him to just check it out because he had been interested in that for a while.”

At an event for prospective graduate students at Emory, McDaniels met the late Rudolph Byrd, Goodrich C. White professor of American Studies and founder of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, who encouraged him to pursue a graduate degree. 

“He saw in him what most people see in Pellom, which is that deep commitment, that intellectual curiosity and the willingness to follow through with something that you have started,” Navvab McDaniels said.

Crespino, who often directed students to McDaniels for archival research, would often talk with him about his NFL career and his adjustment to a completely new life at Emory. Crespino’s father also played in the NFL, and Crespino recognized the many career difficulties that football players face after retirement.

“Pellom was just incredibly successful both as a football player and [in] his second career, and that’s a testament to his intelligence, determination and his skills as a scholar,” Crespino said. “But I also think it’s a testament to his humility and his willingness to make himself over. To succeed as well as he did in two careers that had so little to do with one another — it’s not like he played off his success in the NFL when he got his PhD at Emory.”

McDaniels received his doctorate in American Studies from Emory University’s Institute for the Liberal Arts in 2007. After serving as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he returned to Emory as an associate curator for African American collections under then-lead curator Randall Burkett.

“We worked closely together for three years, after which I retired and he took over leadership of this work,” Burkett wrote in an email. “My wife has always insisted that Pellom was my most important acquisition for Emory! Pellom was a giant of a man: not only in stature but in talent, in intellect, and in energy.  He built the collections in important new ways but also was responsible for extending their reach to the community through programs and exhibitions.”

Those who knew McDaniels recognized his warm, outgoing personality and his ability to connect with everyone he came across. Navvab McDaniels noted, however, that he was shy as a child, but a variety of mentors in college taught him the importance of having a kind and sociable personality.

“As much as he gave to Emory, the love and support he had for his family was unsurpassed,” Anderson recalled. “People would always talk about Pellom with his kids at the pool, Pellom with his kids at basketball, Pellom with his kids at. It was ‘Pellom and.’ He was just a fully engaged father. He was just a giving, warm, generous man.”

McDaniels is survived by his wife of 24 years, Navvab McDaniels, and his two children, Ellington “Duke” McDaniels and Sofia McDaniels.