The Roberson Project Remembers Matt Reynolds

Photo: Matt Reynolds and Sister Felicity Parks ready for business on Memorial Day 2019, the Roberson Project’s first digitization day with the historic Black community in Sewanee.

Two weeks ago, on August 7, all of us who work with the Roberson Project were stunned and saddened to learn that our friend and colleague, Matt Reynolds, had died. Our deepest sympathy goes out to his wife, Viva, their daughter, Fiona, his extended family, and his many close work associates.

Seven years ago, in 2015, Matt came to Sewanee as Associate Director of University Archives and Special Collections. One of the first tasks he took on was helping Professor Woody Register and his research associate, Tanner Potts, pull together and put up an exhibition in the University Archives: “Founded to Make Men: Explorations of Masculinity at the University of the South.” Neither Register nor Potts had ever done anything like this before. Matt jumped into the project with gusto. He was superhumanly patient and helpful with every aspect, including the transfer of the exhibit to an online platform.

In addition to his expertise in information management and archiving, Matt was a historian by training and inclination. He also was a fast learner, diving into Sewanee’s crazy closet of materials to locate and learn the location of items that have eluded cataloging and systematic organization for generations. If he didn’t know where something was, he usually managed to find it. And if he couldn’t find it, that usually meant it wasn’t there, to begin with. Someone with less energy and love of history would have quailed before the mountainous climb of learning our archival collections demanded. Matt seemed to relish the hunt — the more difficult, the better — and exult in the find. 

And speaking of enthusiasm, the Roberson Project has not had a more generous and supportive friend than Matt. And we have leaned on him unsparingly over the last five years. And we usually could have been much more considerate about getting our requests to him in a timely manner. It is no exaggeration to say that Matt was a right arm of the Roberson Project. He found what we requested, and he found a lot of things we didn’t know to request. The density of our research reflects his many contributions.

One big example: three years ago, we staged the first of several digitization events at the St. Mark’s Community Center here in Sewanee to launch a much bigger project to work with local residents in collecting, preserving, and telling Sewanee’s “Black History.” Again, the Roberson Project had never done anything like this before, and there was Matt, again, ready to help us with the nuts and bolts of it as well as the bigger picture. He helped train volunteers in the technologies and methods of taking oral histories, scanning and photographing documents and memorabilia, and organizing the first stage of an online archive that officially launched a year ago: All of us needed some serious hand-holding on this project, and Matt was there for us. We have him to thank for this project’s continuing successes in rebuilding the historical resources of what we call the #savesewaneeblackhistory initiative.

If it is not already clear, allow us to underscore what made working with Matt so rewarding and enjoyable: his good cheer, hearty laugh, love of historical inquiry, faith in education, fondness for college students, and dedication to archives as priceless resources to be used for understanding the past and the present. We could continue in this vein.

We mourn Matt’s death and give thanks for the seven years of collegiality, intellectual partnership, and friendship that he gave to us both as individuals and as a program. We miss him, and we will remember him in all the work we do for the Roberson Project.

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