In memoriam

Gerald R. Gill, twice named college professor of the year

A service of remembrance honoring the life of Tufts historian Gerald R. Gill will take place on Monday, September 24, at 12:15 p.m. in Cohen Auditorium on the Medford/Somerville campus. Gill, a scholar of 20th-century African-American history, died at his home in Cambridge, Mass., on July 26. He was 58.

Gerald R. Gill © MARK MORELLI

Gill was one of Tufts’ most honored and distinguished teachers. He was twice named Massachusetts College Professor of the Year, in 1995 and 1999, by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. He also was the recipient of all of Tufts’ most prestigious teaching and service awards, and because his classroom standards were so high, his colleagues joked that he simply should have held all those awards in perpetuity.

A community remembers Gerald R. Gill

Among his many honors, he was the inaugural winner of the Tufts student senate’s Professor of the Year Award (1999), the Lerman-Neubauer Prize for Outstanding Teaching and Advising (1998) and the Distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Tufts Community (2000) from the Africana Center, subsequently named the Gerald R. Gill Distinguished Service Award.

“Few faculty members have had as large an influence on generations of students as Gerald Gill,” Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow said. “His scholarly work was broad and deep, focusing on race relations in Boston, African-American opposition to the wars of the twentieth century and the history of African-Americans at Tufts. Like the good historian he was, Gerald helped us understand Tufts and its history.”

Since joining the history department in 1980, Gill taught and mentored thousands of students. He was an associate professor of history and had served as deputy chair of the department since 1998. He was a founding faculty member in the university’s American Studies and Peace and Justice Studies programs. His courses in African-American history, the Civil Rights Movement, and most recently, Sports in American History, always filled to capacity. Students were impressed by the breadth of his knowledge, the creativity of his assignments and his ability to make the past come alive for them.

Gill cared for his students as individuals. Never forgetting his students’ names, he would, over the years, also learn the names of his students’ partners and children. Students and colleagues quickly realized that he asked how they were doing because he really wanted to know.

His generosity and accessibility as a teacher and scholar carried beyond his classroom and into the community. He was a frequent speaker and interpreter of African-American history and culture in the greater Boston area, appearing on Boston public radio and television stations. Since 1988, he had been a consultant for many WGBH-TV and Blackside Inc. productions, including “The American Experience,” “Africans in America,” “This Far by Faith,” “I’ll Make Me a World” and “Eyes on the Prize.” He was strongly committed to helping teachers in elementary and secondary schools improve their curriculum and their teaching of African-American and 20th-century America history. Despite a heavy teaching and advising load at Tufts, he unfailingly led workshops and seminars with public school teachers.

He was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., on November 15, 1948. He received his undergraduate degree in history from Lafayette College in 1970, and master’s and doctoral degrees in U.S. history from Howard University in Washington, D.C. His scholarly interest in the history of African-American opposition to the United States wars in the 20th century began with his dissertation and continued with publications on African-Americans’ opposition to the Vietnam War. He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, securing that status with help from U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., the first African-American woman elected to Congress.

He initiated his more recent research, a book, Struggling Yet In Freedom’s Birthplace: Race Relations and Black Protest Activities in Boston, 1920-1972, which is under contract with the University of Massachusetts Press, as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He also held research fellowships at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University and the Center for Afro-American Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. In November 2006, he was the keynote speaker for the conference “Power and Protest: The Civil Rights Movement in Boston, 1960-1968” at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

During his nearly three decades at Tufts, Gill worked very hard to build a truly multicultural, diverse campus community, deeply interweaving his teaching and public speaking with the richness of heritage among Euro-American, Asian-American, Native American and African-American peoples. He closely followed new literature in his field. As more work on women’s experiences and contributions to African-American history came into print, he incorporated that into his courses. Through his innovative teaching and voracious reading in his field, he developed new courses that eventually became embedded in Tufts’ Arts and Sciences curriculum.

Gill had a particularly important place within the university’s black community. He researched and compiled an exhibit at the Tufts University Gallery titled “Another Light on the Hill: A History of Black Students at Tufts University, 1900 to the Present.” He helped teach the entire university about the distinction of its black alumni. The Pan African Alliance and Tufts University Black Alumni Association honored him for his contributions. “Gerald Gill always pushed Tufts to be a better place, a more inclusive place, one that is welcoming to all. For many of us it is difficult to imagine Tufts without him,” Tufts President Bacow said.

He was a member of the American Historical Association, the Association for the Study of Afro-America History and Life, the Organization of American Historians and the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston. He is survived by a daughter, Ayanna Ettann Gill-McGee, of Jackson Miss.; two sisters, Willie Butler and Mary Smith, both of Germantown, Md., and a grandson.

To honor Gill’s memory and create a permanent legacy to his scholarship and service to Tufts, the university has established the Gerald R. Gill Fund. Checks, payable to the Trustees of Tufts College, can be sent to Brigette A. Bryant, Arts & Sciences Development, 80 George St., Room 320, Medford, MA 02155. Please make the following notation on your check: “in memory of Gerald Gill; allocation code CR007013.”

This story ran in the September 2007 issue of the Tufts Journal.