Notable People and Topics in Our History . . .
Christopher Crittenden: Populist Historian at the Helm
generation after Christopher Crittenden's death, his contributions continue to inspire his successors at Archives and History. Given his long tenure at the agency, the role he played in developing state programs, and the leadership he offered to national historical organizations, it is unlikely that those who come after will leave as indelible an imprint.
Christopher Crittenden, born on December 1, 1902, maintained lifelong ties to Wake Forest College, where his father was a teacher and his mother a librarian. His maternal grandfather had been the school's president. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Wake Forest and a doctorate at Yale University in 1930. His dissertation became his second book, The Commerce of North Carolina, 1763-1789, published in 1936. His first book was North Carolina Newspapers before 1790 (1928). Crittenden taught history at Yale while completing his studies and from 1930 to 1935 was an assistant professor in Chapel Hill.
On July 1, 1935, Crittenden replaced Albert Ray Newsome as secretary of the North Carolina Historical Commission, beginning a thirty-four-year association with the state office. During that time the agency increased in size from 8 to 135 employees. Davidson College professor Frontis Johnston once remarked that Crittenden was "a giant among state historical leaders and more than anyone else gave the North Carolina agency a national reputation." Crittenden's successor as director, H. G. Jones, declared that the tall, baldheaded, bow-tied historian loved practical jokes and "burgeoned out the best in his staff."
During Crittenden's tenure the agency spearheaded the highway historical marker program, extended its publications offerings, pioneered modern records management, began a system of state-owned historic sites, and launched modern museum and preservation programs. The marker program, an initiative he inherited from Newsome, exemplified his philosophy of "history for all the people." Crittenden attended hundreds of programs across the state, regularly distributed press releases, and became the public face of Archives and History. While maintaining high professional standards and a close working relationship with academics, he demonstrated that history was not solely the province of the ivory tower.
Crittenden served, at the state level, as secretary of the Literary and Historical Association (promoting in particular the annual gathering that came to be known as "Culture Week") and headed commemorations of anniversaries of the Carolina Charter and the Civil War. On the national level, he was the first president of the American Association for State and Local History (1940-1942) and president of the Society of American Archivists (1946-1948). He received honorary doctorates from Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1968, the year the agency occupied its present building, Crittenden stepped down to serve as assistant director. Just before entering the hospital three weeks before his death on October 13, 1969, he left in his desk a note offering suggestions regarding his funeral. "Kindly have the doctor double check to make absolutely certain that I am dead," he instructed, closing "Good luck to everybody."
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