This Wednesday’s Woman was born in Virginia, but spent her life in Camden County, New Jersey. Dorothy Allen Conley Elam (1904-1989) was an African American teacher, historian and award-winning advocate of Black studies.
Her father built their home in Albion, Berlin Township, and was the area’s first black licensed realtor. She attended school in Albion and Clementon; graduated from Haddon Heights High School; and earned a teaching diploma from Glassboro Normal School in 1925 before marrying Harry Conley later that year.
She began teaching in the two-room, segregated, K-8 Berlin Community School where this photo was taken in 1952, just five years after New Jersey had desegregated its schools. A leader in Albion’s U.A.M.E. Church, Conley spoke out on desegregation at churches and parent-teacher organizations.
In 1941 she worked for the NAACP’s Camden County Executive Board. In 1947 she organized and became president of the Camden County Inter-Cultural Council and presided over the South Jersey branch of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History.
History of spirituals
Conley returned to school for her bachelor’s degree at Glassboro State in 1956 and pursued graduate studies at Hampton Institute, Syracuse University and Rutgers University. While studying spirituals for a music course at Rutgers she undertook an extensive research project on the meaning of their lyrics, eventually writing a script that was recorded in 1968 (“Historical Interpretation Of Negro Spirituals and Lift Every Voice And Sing”).
She retired from a 38-year teaching career in 1964. Three years later she married Rev. Arthur Elam, a community leader, and returned to the Camden County schools to develop an African-American history curriculum and start a pilot program for pregnant, unmarried teens.
“Negro history must be studied, not only because it is the history of over 19 million Americans, but American life as a whole cannot be understood without knowing it.”
She also founded Conlam Enterprises to promote the distribution of records and poems on the African-American experience, including a book of poems by her grandson, Everett N. Conley.
Over her lifetime, Dorothy Allen Conley Elam received awards from the NAACP; NJ State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs; the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History; the Association of Business and Professional Women of Camden and Vicinity; and Camden’s Tenth Street Baptist Church.
In 1966 she spoke before the Gloucester County Human Relations Council, her words as relevant 51 years ago as they are today: “Negro history must be studied, not only because it is the history of over 19 million Americans, but American life as a whole cannot be understood without knowing it.” In February 1980 President Jimmy Carter invited her to witness his declaration of Black History Month — a project she had helped develop in her work with the Association for the Study of Afro-America Life and History. Dorothy Allen Conley Elam died in December of 1989 at West Jersey Hospital-Voorhees shortly after suffering a stroke.