Remembering a Beloved History Professor

The Gerald Gill papers at Tufts Digital Collections and Archives showcase the stories of African-Americans at the university and in Boston
Gerald Gill at Tufts in 1998
Gerald Gill in the classroom in 1998. In his 27 years teaching history at Tufts, Gill established himself as an original and polished scholar, focused on telling stories long overlooked or overshadowed. Photo: Michael Lutch
May 4, 2017

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When history professor Gerald Gill died 10 years ago at age 59, the Tufts community lost a friend, scholar, mentor and extraordinary teacher—he was named Massachusetts Professor of the Year not once, but twice. 

Now his legacy can be appreciated anew, as selections from the Gerald Gill papers at Digital Collections and Archives can be seen in an exhibition in Tisch Library’s Dranetz Tower corridor through fall 2017.

Gill’s personal papers—encompassing lectures, writings, correspondence and photographs—“vividly capture the accomplishments and core beliefs of a person who was part of the fabric of Tufts for almost three decades,” said Daniel Santamaria, director of Digital Collections and Archives and university archivist.

In his 27 years teaching at Tufts, Gill established himself as an original and polished scholar, focused on telling stories long overlooked or overshadowed. His seminal piece, Another Light on the Hill, revealed the history of African-American experience at the university. Intrigued by Boston’s civil rights history, he also wrote three chapters of an unpublished book on African-American protest movements in Boston from 1935 to 1965.

The collection documents the lasting friendships he forged with his students. And it is also a snapshot of a changing university; the ephemera typically tossed and lost to recorded history—flyers for student groups, the scribbled note perhaps pushed under his office door—Gill saved them all.

Taken together, the collection “gives a fuller picture of life at Tufts,” said Santamaria. “It connects students to the past and to the people who came before them. That can be really important to their education and to their lives.”

As a companion to the collection, Digital Collections and Archives is also building an online version of Another Light on the Hill. “We hope this will be a long-term project,” said Santamaria, “that will continue to make the stories of African-Americans at Tufts more visible.”  

Gill came to Tufts in 1980 after earning a Ph.D. at Howard University, bringing with him a passion for researching and sharing the history of African-Americans.

In both 1995 and 1999, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education named Gill Massachusetts College Professor of the Year, a rare distinction. He also received Tufts’ Lillian and Joseph Leibner Award for Excellence in Teaching and Advising, the Lerman-Neubauer Prize for Outstanding Teaching and Advising, and the Tufts Community Senate’s Professor of the Year Award.

Santamaria credited Professor of History Jeanne Marie Penvenne with helping make the papers an official part of University Archives, and thanked Gill’s daughter, Ayanna E. Gill, for entrusting those papers to the university’s care.

Penvenne said the collection speaks to Gill’s understanding of “the power of the remembered past to shape the imagined future. He never let Tufts forget how important black Tuftonians were—and that the larger community around Tufts was incredibly important, too.”   

Among the highlights of the collection, she said, are the transcripts of a longitudinal study Gill conducted for more than a decade in which he asked students to interview people about the civil rights era. Other highlights include his “astonishing lectures” written out in his distinct penmanship.

The significance of the collection’s donation to the university is underscored by recent companion events at Tufts. The Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy last month launched a project that fulfills one of Gill’s dreams, the Tufts African-American Freedom Trail, and faculty paid tribute to his legacy at the accompanying symposium. There, James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, noted that thanks to the enduring affection and generosity of alumni and friends, the university next fall will initiate a search to fill the newly endowed Gerald Gill Professorship. It will bring to Tufts a professor studying race, culture and society; the first professorship, fittingly, will be in the history department.

The Gerald Gill Papers can be accessed in the reading room of Digital Collections and Archive. A guide to the collection is available online in the Tufts Digital Library.

 Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.