Everyone needs a mentor. I’ve been blessed to have several amazing ones including the late James Dent Walker from the National Archives.
I was introduced to “Jimmy”, as he was known to friends, in 1977 when I wasn’t having any luck with my application to DAR – the National Society of the Daughters of the Revolution. No local chapter in my neck of the woods would invite me to become a member even though I had documented my eligibility. That may sound strange these days but that was back where there weren’t any African American members in DAR.
So many times, Jimmy and his wonderful wife, Barbara opened up their home in Washington, D.C. to me when I came in town to do research. That little bedroom on their third floor became my official home away from home. By day, I’d hop the 16th Street bus and ride down to the National Archives for hours of family research where Jimmy would check on me from time to time.
Then loaded down a whole new batch of notes, I’d take the bus back for an evening with my hosts – always a combo of great food, great company, research tips and stories of days gone by from both Barbara and Jimmy. More than a few times over the years, I’ve paused to remember how generous they were with their hospitality, time and wisdom.
I quickly learned that Jimmy was the genealogist’s genealogist. Over the years, many a researcher at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. was the beneficiary of Jimmy’s absolute mind-blowing knowledge of where to find that exact piece of information that would finally connect a weary researcher with their ancestor.
But Black family genealogy was his passion and his efforts created a strong support network for people, like me, doing African American family history. In fact, Jimmy helped author Alex Haley document his family history which was later immortalized in the bestseller, Roots.
During his 30 year career at the National Archives, Jimmy became a noted expert on pension and military records. After he retired as director of local history and genealogical programs, Jimmy was hired by DAR to help document the service of more than 5000 African Americans who fought in or gave civil service during the American Revolution.
In 1977, I received an invitation to join the Daughters of the American Revolution from the Ezra Parker Chapter DAR in Royal Oak near my hometown of Detroit, Michigan. Later that year, I became a member. Jimmy never said so, but I know he had a hand in encouraging DAR to welcome me as their first African American member. And even though he’s gone now, the wisdom I got from the genealogist’s genealogist is always part of my family history toolkit.