Gerald Gill's untimely passing in July of 2007 stunned the Tufts University community, where he had taught for the past quarter century. A specialist in twentieth-century African-American history, Gill was a beloved teacher on the Boston-area campus and had won numerous professional accolades during his career. Andrew McClellan, the dean of academic affairs for arts and sciences, told to Liz Hoffman and Rob Silverblatt in the Tufts Daily that the university was searching for a new faculty hire to teach Gill's class load, but admitted it was "a hard thing to do…. It almost seems inappropriate to rush to replace someone who is irreplaceable."
Gill was born on November 18, 1948, in New Rochelle, New York. When he turned eighteen years old, he became eligible for military service at a time when the United States still had a draft. U.S. armed forces were mired in a conflict in Southeast Asia known as the Vietnam War, an unpopular conflict that was extracting a high death toll for U.S. service personnel. Gill was able to register as a conscientious objector, which did not relieve him from being drafted but helped avoid a combat assignment if he was. That experience piqued his interest in other opposition movements to previous wars, and he would later make this the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Howard University.
Gill's undergraduate years were spent at Lafayette College in eastern Pennsylvania, a predominantly white school that nevertheless extended an invitation to the Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael to speak there during the height of the black power era. Carmichael's impassioned rhetoric awakened in Gill an interest in the black consciousness movement, and he helped found the school's Association of Black Collegians as well as its Black Cultural Center.
After graduating in 1970 with a degree in history, Gill spent two years teaching eighth-grade social studies in his hometown of New Rochelle before enrolling at Howard University in Washington, DC. He earned a master's degree in American history in 1974 and began working on his doctorate at Howard. In 1979 he won a fellowship at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, so he moved to the Boston area.
Gill arrived in a city that had achieved a rather dubious reputation by the late 1970s. Even though Boston had been home to free blacks and abolitionists earlier in its history, just three years before Gill's arrival Boston's streets were the site of notorious riots over a court-ordered school desegregation plan. This involved busing students out of predominantly African-American neighborhoods into schools located in Italian-American and Irish-American enclaves, and vice versa.
Such was the atmosphere of recent racial turmoil into which Gill arrived in 1979, but when he was offered a post as associate professor of history at Tufts University a year later, he decided to accept it and began a study of Boston history from a race-based perspective. "I became interested in looking at race relations and African-American protests in Boston largely because many of my friends from graduate school asked me questions about why I was staying in Boston," he told Patrice Taddonio in a interview in 2005 for Tufts Daily. "Boston doesn't have the best reputation in terms of being a city that's hospitable towards African-Americans. There are people who would argue that Boston is the most racist city in the United States." He cautioned, however, that a balanced perspective was necessary, citing racial disturbances and police brutality problems in places such as Los Angeles and New York. "I don't think you can apply the racist label to any city: each city has its own racial problems; and each city has its own racial and racialized history," he reflected.
Gill's first book, Meanness Mania: The Changed Mood, was a look at the growing U.S. neoconservative movement in the 1980s. He earned his doctorate from Howard University in 1985 with a dissertation examining African-American opposition to twentieth-century wars. At Tufts he taught standard American history courses and developed new ones, many of which became student favorites. One popular class was "Sport in America," which examined professional sports as a bellwether for cultural and social change. His classes were often filled to capacity, but he committed to memory all his students' names each semester.
Gill often queried those students at the beginning of the term "to name 10 prominent African-American men who were no longer alive," wrote Bryan Marquard in the Boston Globe. "If they succeeded, he asked them to name 10 black women. During his early years at the front of the class, he found that many students were hard-pressed to name four women. Not until the early 1990s could his students regularly name 10 in each category, a change he attributed to the increased emphasis on African-American history in high schools." When a student asked about African Americans at the school itself, he researched and organized "Another Light on the Hill: A History of Black Students at Tufts University, 1900 to the Present" for the Tufts Gallery.
Gill was named Massachusetts Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1995 and 1999, and was honored with the Lerman-Neubauer Prize for Outstanding Teaching and Advising in 1998. Even though Gill did not complete another scholarly tome before his death, he was a prolific contributor to titles by others on the topics of race in America and affirmative action. He served as a consultant to the landmark Public Broadcasting Service series Eyes on the Prize (1990), a fourteen-hour documentary of the civil rights movement in America. At the time of his death he was working on a history of race relations in Boston in the twentieth century tentatively titled Struggling Yet in Freedom's Birthplace.
Gill died of arterial sclerosis on July 26, 2007, at his Cambridge home at the age of fifty-nine. Survivors included a daughter, Ayanna Ettann Gill-McGee, from a marriage that ended in divorce and a grandson. His legacy was also the Lafayette College organizations he helped found back in the late 1960s, the Association of Black Collegians and the Black Cultural Center, both of which were still active on campus. Bob Weiner, a professor of history at Lafayette who knew Gill when he was an undergraduate, spoke to Hoffman and Silverblatt about Gill's character. "When we talked about issues of race and equality, he approached them as much from sadness as from anger and always with a sense of balance and perspective," Weiner said. "He wanted to learn about the problems, and then he wanted to fix them. He had a wonderful spirit and a great love for humanity."
At a Glance …
Born Gerald Robert Gill on November 18, 1948, in New Rochelle, NY; died of arterial sclerosis on July 26, 2007, in Cambridge, MA; son of Robert and Etta Gill; divorced; children: Ayanna Ettann Gill-McGee. Education: Lafayette College, BA, 1970; Howard University, MA, 1974, PhD, 1985.
Career: New Rochelle, NY, public schools, social studies teacher, 1970-72; Institute for the Study of Educational Policy, Howard University, research assistant, 1976-78, research fellow, 1978-79; W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University, fellow, 1979; Tufts University, associate professor of history, 1980-2007, deputy chair of the history department, 1998-2007.
Memberships: American Historical Association; Southern Historical Association; Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Awards: Massachusetts Professor of the Year, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1995 and 1999; Lerman-Neubauer Prize for Outstanding Teaching and Advising, 1998.
Meanness Mania: The Changed Mood, Howard University Press, 1980.
"The Rightward Drift in America," in The State of Black America, National Urban League, 1981.
Tufts Daily (Medford, MA), January 31, 2005; September 4, 2007.
Boston Globe, August 2, 2007.
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