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 William David McCain (1907-1993) 


William David McCain was an archivist and historian of local Mississippi history. Born in Bellefontaine, Mississippi on March 29, 1907, he received degrees from Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi and the University of Mississippi in Jackson before completing a doctoral degree from Duke University. He then began giving lectures at several colleges and universities, including the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University. McCain applied his interest in local history to work as a genealogist and archivist at the Morristown National Historic Park in Morristown, New Jersey. During this time, he helped found the Society of American Archivists and published extensive genealogical histories of the McCain, Fox, Shaw, and Vance families. McCain worked briefly as Assistant Archivist at the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. before directing the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History in Jackson, Mississippi in 1938.


McCain enlisted in the Mississippi National Guard in 1924 at the young age of seventeen. During World War II, he served with a U.S. Army antiaircraft artillery unit. In December 1943 he was reassigned as a military historian recording the progression of U.S. Fifth Army through North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy. The following September, McCain joined the MFAA as Regional Archivist for the Lombardia region of Italy, where he operated alongside Monuments Man Maj. Harry E. Bell to locate, safeguard, and recover collections of looted Italian books, manuscripts, and ministerial records. He also collaborated closely with Italian officials to restore several damaged libraries as well as to coordinate the return to Rome of the evacuated records of the Italian government.


Following his return to the United States in late 1945, McCain resumed his work as director of the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History. In May 1955 he became President of Mississippi Southern College (today, The University of Southern Mississippi) in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. McCain’s twenty year tenure as president is credited as the university’s most transformative period. He increased enrollment, expanded the athletic program, and raised funds to construct many new campus buildings, including the Vann Hall athletic dormitories and the Reed Green Coliseum. McCain also began renovations at M.M. Roberts Stadium, providing the new seats, scoreboard, and lights befitting a football team on the rise.


During the 1950s and 1960s, McCain directed the university’s response to desegregation efforts, which he vehemently opposed. In 1959 Clyde Kennard, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Germany and Korea, attempted to become the first African American to attend Mississippi Southern College. Despite his qualifications, he immediately faced opposition from the white political establishment, including McCain and Mississippi Governor James P. Coleman, who pressured him to withdraw his application. Kennard was later refused admission due to an administrative technicality and falsely accused of a minor crime. However, his determination helped pave the way for others. The university’s first black students, Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong and Raylawni Branch, enrolled without incident in September 1965. In subsequent years, McCain witnessed the complete integration of the university.


McCain remained an avid genealogist and historian for the rest of his life. Upon his retirement as President Emeritus in 1975, the university renamed the graduate library in his honor. From his offices in McCain Library, he conducted research on the Confederacy and post-Civil War South. He was instrumental in the revival of the Sons of Confederate Veterans as well as its journal, Confederate Veteran. He established the organization’s national headquarters in Columbia, Tennessee and organized popular recruiting events which resulted in a twentyfold rise in membership. Remaining in the National Guard throughout the Korean War and after, he ultimately rose to the rank of Major General.


William McCain died in Mississippi on September 5, 1993. Today, the rare books and historical records of The University of Southern Mississippi, which include the William D. McCain Pamphlet Collection of race-related documents, are held in the McCain Library and Archives.

Photo courtesy of the Walter Gleason Collection, The Monuments Men Foundation Collection, the National WWII Museum, New Orleans, LA.

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