Herbert Hill, link between civil rights, labor issues, dead at 80

August 19, 2004 By Barbara Wolff

Civil rights activist, scholar and labor administrator Herbert Hill died on Sunday, Aug. 15, in Madison. He was 80.

Hill had been a member of the UW–Madison Department of Afro-American Studies from its inception in 1977 until his retirement in 1997. As one of the nation’s foremost experts on relationships between African Americans and organized labor, he brought both real-world experience and textbook knowledge to the emerging field.

A native of New York City, Hill earned degrees from New York University (B.A., 1945) and the New School for Social Research (1948), where he studied with German-American political scientist Hannah Arendt, leading scholar of totalitarianism.

Upon graduation from the New School, Hill became national labor director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a position he continued to hold until he left New York for Wisconsin in 1977. During those nearly 30 years, Hill worked on labor and civil rights issues on a visiting or consulting basis for the United Nations (1959-60), United Steelworkers of America (1947-48), the State of Israel (1960-61), the University of California-Irvine (1969-70) and California State University (1968-69). In addition, he presented testimony before numerous congressional committees, the federal Labor Department, the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the Equal Opportunity Commission and more.

Once at UW–Madison, Hill helped establish its Department of Afro-American Studies as one of the largest and most successful in the country. His courses in black labor history have served as models of effective integration of humanities and social-science perspectives.

His books include “Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality” (Princeton University Press, 2001), “Race in America: The Struggle for Equality” (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), “Black Labor and the American Legal System” (UW Press, 1978, 1985), “Anger and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States” (Harper and Row: 1966) and “Soon One Morning” (Knopf, 1963). He also contributed frequently to such periodicals as The Nation, The Progressive, Commonweal, The Crisis and more throughout his career.

According to Stanley Kutler, Hill’s longtime friend and UW–Madison emeritus professor of history, Hill’s very presence in the Department of Afro-American Studies gave the new department added credibility and national visibility.

“Herbert’s long career as labor secretary of the NAACP established solid credentials for his second life in the academy. His own scholarly contributions also are important. He was invaluable as a colleague – critical, yet always constructive and pointing the way toward more sophisticated understating. I am very much in his debt,” Kutler says.

Hill was preceded in death by his wife, Mary Lydon, in 2001. A private memorial service is planned for mid-September.