James D. Walker: Lone Messenger to International Genealogist

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 D. Walker, Research Consultant, 1973. (National Archives Identifier 3493293)
James D. Walker, Research Consultant, 1973. (National Archives Identifier 3493293)

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.

General Services Administration (GSA) Annual Awards Ceremony, left to right: Corrine Staton, Edna Self, Marion Johnson, Cyrus Greenawalt, Marjorie Wagus, James Walker, and Edward MacClane, 5/20/1965. (National Archives Identifier 17616884)

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.

Photograph of the opening of the new Microfilm Reading Room. Pictured from left to right are an unidentified researcher and Archives staff members James Walker and Jim Gear, 6/24/1971 (National Archives Identifier 23856415)

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.

12 thoughts on “James D. Walker: Lone Messenger to International Genealogist

  1. Beautifully written! If anyone had a sunny disposition it was Jimmy Walker; I don’t remember anyone referring to him as James. The reason our interview took place at the DAR was that he had office space there in connection with his work in authenticating service of Blacks who fought in the Revolutionary War.

    1. Thanks for that, Rod! You’re pictured in my blog post about this outstanding essay by Kirsten Dillon (Nixonara pingback below). Great to see you provide micro-history data about the oral history interview in your comment!

  2. A retired NARA staffer read this piece and sent me this comment: “Jimmy was a great person. And the article only hints at the racial prejudice and academic snobbery of the times. (And being female in those days wasn’t great either)”

  3. Reblogged this on familytreegirldotcom and commented:
    It’s February and as a President of an Afro-American Historical Genealogical Society (AAHGS) Chapter in Central Virginia. I thought it would be appropriate to reblog the Archives article on James Dent Walker, founder of AAHGS. thank you.

  4. Has a transcript of Mr. Walker’s oral history interview been published? I would like to read the interview if possible. I shared this blog on my Ancestor Puzzles Facebook page.

  5. Thank you for this fantastic article. I am the Executive Director of the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, the official museum and archives of the DC Public School System of which Mr. Walker was the first Archivist and Assistant Director. As we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Museum this year, we kicked off the Hurlbut-Walker Memorial Research Forum named in honor of the Museum’s founding Director Richard Hurlbut and Jimmy Walker. If it weren’t for their efforts and significant contributions to the field, we would not exist and not have 30 great years under our belt to reflect on to include the development of a rich collection, one of a kind of its type in the nation-that continues to grow. We are indebted to Walker, Hurlbut and others who laid the groundwork and provided spaces and resources for us to share important legacies and history and discover who we are. If you are interested in learning of upcoming forums and other activities at Sumner Museum, please contact us at info.sumnerschool@dc.gov.

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