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RIP: Walter Hill Jr.;Scholar Opened Window Onto African American History

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by Joe Holley, Washington Post

Walter B. Hill Jr., 59, a scholar of African American history who was dedicated to making African American materials preserved in the National Archives more accessible to scholars and the public, died July 29 of leukemia at Washington Hospital Center. In a career spanning three decades, he was a senior archivist and the National Archives’ first subject area specialist in Afro-American history.

“He developed the most extensive contacts of any area experts I’ve ever seen at the National Archives,” said Michael J. Kurtz, assistant archivist for records services at the National Archives. “He was tremendously adept at reaching out to people and organizations and building partnerships.”

Thanks to Dr. Hill’s efforts, editors, filmmakers, documentarians, scholars and historians investigating the African American experience “were able to navigate their way through the system,” Kurtz said. Intimately familiar with the vast holdings of the archives, Dr. Hill was able to direct them to the pertinent documents, microfilms, photographs, maps and charts and other materials in the country’s official repository of federal records.

A scholar, he published a number of articles, guides and essays about African American history, among them an article in the winter 2000 issue of Prologue magazine titled “Living With the Hydra: The Documentation of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Federal Records.”

In the article, Dr. Hill noted that the establishment of the National Archives in 1934 opened “an amazing window of scholarship and research into America’s past,” including a “paper trail that detailed the legal and political complexity of the octopus-like institution.” Slavery’s documentary trail, he pointed out, is preserved in the National Archives.

For an essay that ran in a 1996 issue of the Negro History Bulletin, he ferreted out mostly forgotten information about efforts beginning in the late 1800s to compensate former slaves by granting them a pension. The efforts died out in the 1920s.

“What remained,” he wrote, “were broken dreams and lost money, and a small amount of federal records that help tell this story.”

Dr. Hill also was a consultant on the movie “Glory” (1989) and on many documentaries about the African American experience. He was a member of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture and served on panels and committees for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. He also conducted oral histories for “The History Makers,” a Chicago-based oral history archive of the African American experience.

Dr. Hill was born in St. Louis and received his undergraduate degree in history from the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1971. He received a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University in 1973 and a doctorate in 1988 from the University of Maryland, where he studied with noted historian of slavery Ira Berlin.

Dr. Hill joined the National Archives and Records Administration in 1978 and held several positions at the agency before becoming a senior archivist and area subject expert.

He also served as chief historian for the African American Civil War Memorial at 10th and U streets in the District and taught at St. Louis University, U-Md. and Howard University, where he was an adjunct professor each spring from 1984 until his death.

An athlete his whole life, he played football, lacrosse and track in high school and later became an enthusiastic handball player. He twice won the Maryland state doubles championship.

“He was a modest man,” said Charles Parsons, his doubles partner for the past two decades. His fellow handball players had no idea of his professional accomplishments, Parsons said. “What they did know is that he was the nicest guy any of them ever met.”

Kurtz, who met Dr. Hill at the National Archives in about 1980, said he was a patient and selfless mentor to younger staff members. “Walter was a sharer,” he said.

Survivors include his wife of 33 years, Irene Hill of Mitchellville; two children, Matthew Hill of Cincinnati and Alexis Hill of Mitchellville; and three sisters.

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Written by Symphony

September 8, 2008 at 1:24 am

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