Noted Lincoln scholar and pioneer in the oral history field Cullom Davis has died

Steven Spearie
State Journal-Register
Cullom Davis

George Cullom Davis, a founding faculty member at the Sangamon State University (now the University of Illinois Springfield) and a pioneer in the oral history tradition, died in Springfield Friday. He was 87.

Davis taught and served as an assistant to the president of SSU, which was established in 1969, and held its first classes at First United Methodist Church in downtown Springfield.

SSU became part of the University of Illinois system in 1995.

Davis was an assistant professor of history at Indiana University before coming to Springfield. A scholar of Abraham Lincoln, Davis directed and edited the groundbreaking Lincoln Legal Papers, or the Abraham Lincoln Papers project, which sought to capture digital images of every document written by or to Lincoln during his lifetime. 

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"It's thanks to Cullom that we now have a huge chunk of the Lincoln story from when he was living in central Illinois," said Anne Moseley, the director of engagement and curator for the Sangamon Experience and acting director of the Center for Lincoln Studies at UIS.

One of the early editors of the Lincoln papers was Moseley's father, Dennis Suttles, who was tasked with going from courthouse to courthouse to find Lincoln documents.

Others who worked on the project included Erika Holst, curator of history at the Illinois State Museum, and Samuel Wheeler, former Illinois State Historian.

Moseley said Davis "put Sangamon State on the map as the place to go to develop your craft as an oral historian, interviewing people about the past. In looking at the special collections that we have here (at UIS), there's a treasure trove of community stories, thanks to Cullom."

Many of the oral history collections housed at UIS from survivors of the 1908 Springfield Race Riot were done by Davis, Moseley said.

Davis was the great-grandnephew of Shelby Moore Cullom, a former Illinois governor and U.S. Senator who was a friend of Lincoln.

A founding member of the Sangamon State University faculty and a noted historian on Abraham Lincoln, Professor Cullom Davis was also a pioneer of the oral history field.

Davis retired from UIS in 2000 and was named a professor emeritus of history.

In 2006, Davis received the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, an honor bestowed upon alumni, faculty, staff or friends of the university who have "consistently demonstrated extraordinary commitment, dedication and service to the advancement of the University of Illinois."

Davis was named to the Order of Lincoln, an Illinois honor society that recognizes people who have lived or were born in Illinois and whose achievements have raised the state's profile, in 2009.

Larry Golden, emeritus professor of legal and political studies at UIS and also a founding faculty member, said SSU was "in part what it became because of Cullom. He stepped into a very difficult leadership void in that first couple of years that helped us get through a period of struggle that allowed the university to continue. He wasn't president but for all practical purposes, he stepped in and provided a kind of stability and leadership.

"He was a person of great integrity. He had the ability to bridge between various groupings of people to move things ahead. There was a calmness to him despite the fact that there was a firmness at the same time. He wasn't the kind of person who would yell and scream like some of the rest of us. He had his convictions. He understood what he needed to do to stay above the fray."

Cullom Davis was a founding faculty member at Sangamon State University, now the University of Illinois Springfield.

In a video about the early days of SSU, Davis recalled that faculty members were creating courses "as we were writing the catalog. It's amusing now to look back on it. We tried to make it look impressive, but the fact of the matter is we were all kind of reacting intuitively to very challenging questions."

Michael Burlingame, the Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at UIS and a Lincoln scholar and author, said Davis will be missed not only by his friends and family "but by the larger Lincoln community that he served so well as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Association’s board of directors and as head of the Lincoln Legal Papers."

Davis did his undergraduate work at Princeton University and has masters and doctoral degrees in history from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Davis is survived by his wife, Ann, three children and two stepchildren. A memorial service celebrating Davis' life will be held at Lincoln Memorial Gardens at a later date.

Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com, twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.