In celebration of Black History Month the National Archives History Office is sharing stories of African American former employees and their influence on the institution. Today’s post comes from Kirsten Dillon.
James “Jimmy” Dent Walker, born June 9, 1928, in Washington, DC, was a well-known genealogical consultant at the National Archives. During his career, Walker built up the National Archives’ public standing as a place for genealogical research. He was particularly noted for his knowledge of military and pension records, and his ability to uncover sources important to African American genealogy.
However, Walker had a long and sometimes challenging path to his prominent position.
Walker worked at the National Archives on three separate occasions. The first time he was a self-described “lone messenger” while in high school during World War II. During the war, the National Archives employed people as young as 16 to fill positions vacated by those serving in the military. When the war ended, those fillers, along with Walker, lost their positions to returning veterans.
Walker returned to the National Archives after serving in the Korean War. He had served as a Navy surveyor 2nd class, although Walker said he did “everything but survey.” His time in the Navy was marked by working in different positions when called upon and moving up in the ranks. By the time he was discharged from the Navy in 1951, Walker was the highest ranking enlisted man and fifth-highest surveyor in the Navy. In his own words, he had “come up from the bottom of the heap.”
This trend continued during Walker’s time at the National Archives. He returned in October 1951 as a messenger in the Central Reference Office, the same position he held years earlier. After a year and half, he was transferred to the Industrial Records Branch and ultimately promoted to the Old Army Records Branch in the military division.
Although Walker was a valuable staff member, he began to face challenges from within the National Archives.
In his new role as a technician, Walker was greeted by a formal protest from his co-workers, who felt that Walker was not qualified for the job since he held no degree. According to Walker, he and other Black employees often had supervisors who tried to prevent the promotion of minorities within the Archives. Walker recalled talking to other African American workers who felt they would never be recognized for their work or promoted simply because of their race.
Walker, however, decided not to let adverse situations “dictate his conduct or actions.”
In time, Walker was promoted to supervisor of the Military Service Section. He continued to demonstrate his distinct work ethic, learning the records inside and out, wherever he went.
In 1957 Walker left the National Archives again but ultimately returned for the third, and final time. He was offered a position as research consultant and worked on genealogical research.
At that time, Walker faced disagreements with other Archives staff about the value of genealogical research verses more “scholarly” research.
Then came Roots, Alex Haley’s immensely popular 1976 book that traced his ancestry back to a man named Kunta Kinte in Africa. Walker helped Haley with the genealogical research for the novel, and when it was released, the National Archives was flooded with requests for genealogical research material.
Shortly after the premiere of the miniseries based on the book, Walker founded the Afro-American Historical Genealogical Society to promote interest in African American history and genealogy.
In many ways, this was the same work that Walker tried to perform at the National Archives.
Before his time and even during it, Walker stated that the National Archives “considered genealogical research to be akin to sin.” But, with help from staff like Walker, the National Archives became one the best places in the country for genealogical research.
In his last position at the National Archives, Walker was transferred back to the military unit and retired in 1979. He went on to work as an archivist in District of Columbia public schools and continued to further his work on genealogical studies, including giving lectures and producing numerous publications.
James Walker’s legacy stretches far beyond what he did for genealogical research. In every position he held, he conducted himself professionally yet challenged the institutions that he felt could be improved.
Walker died on October 8, 1993, in Washington, DC.
Walker’s recollections are from a recorded oral history interview on March 2, 1985, with Rod Ross at the D.A.R. Building in Washington, DC.