R. Kelly Bryant preserved and honored Durham’s history

R. Kelly Bryant Jr. possessed no graduate degrees and did not spend his working life in tweeds with elbow patches doing research in libraries.

But he was every bit the historian that anyone who made a living at it was.

Bryant, who died last week at 98, was a collector. He saved birth announcements, funeral programs, obituaries – any records that could tell the story of a community that otherwise might have been forgotten, the African-American community in Durham. He went back as far as the papers he gathered would allow.

And he used his records productively, to make a case for a historic marker where none might have been seen, to help save an old cemetery that might have been forgotten, to push for integration of the Boy Scouts (he was a leader himself) when that was thought impossible.

Some of his goals he lived to see, some he didn’t. But Bryant was a formidable man, who essentially collected stories from families that told the larger story of African-Americans in Durham and beyond.

Thanks to him, legacies of individuals and families were saved, because African-Americans were long ignored, in many places at least, as movers and shakers in history. Absent the efforts of Bryant, family histories and in some ways families themselves might have been lost.