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A historian of colonial-era Louisiana, she dug deep into the archives to transform our understanding of the roots of American culture.
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Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, who after years of digging through obscure libraries in Louisiana, Spain and France managed to rescue the identities of more than 100,000 enslaved people from archival oblivion and demonstrate the vast extent of African influence on America’s cultural heritage, died on Aug. 29 in Guanajuato, Mexico, about 200 miles northwest of Mexico City. She was 93.
Her son Haywood Hall said her death, at his home, came after a recurrence of breast cancer and a stroke.
Dr. Hall led a colorful early life as a civil rights activist and spent the bulk of her academic career at Rutgers University, where she taught Latin American history. It was only at the end of that time, and later in retirement, that she left her true mark on the fields of colonial and African American history.
For much of the 20th century, most historians assumed there was little material to be found about enslaved Africans in the colonial era — their origins, and even many of their names, were assumed lost.
Dr. Hall showed that this was not the case, at least in Francophone North America. While conducting research in a rural courthouse in southern Louisiana, she discovered a record book in which French colonial notaries had documented in precise detail the identities of thousands of enslaved Africans brought to Louisiana in the 18th century.
They had written down not just their names but their places of origin, their families, the ships they arrived on, their skills, even their personality traits as a marker of rebelliousness. She soon found similarly dusty records in similarly out-of-the-way places around the state.
“Very few people in these courthouses knew the value of the documents they had,” Dr. Hall said in an interview with the musician and cultural historian Ned Sublette in 2005. “Some of them were kept in very, very bad shape, but it varied according to the courthouse.”
Fluent in French and Spanish, Dr. Hall spent the next seven years searching for similar books, not just in Louisiana but also in government libraries in Madrid and Paris. She gathered what she found into a database and eventually identified some 107,000 people. She then used that material to revolutionize historians’ understanding of slavery in her book “Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century,” published in 1992.
She showed, for example, that about two-thirds of the enslaved Africans brought to Louisiana came from the area that is now Senegal and Gambia. They interacted with Native Americans, as well as with French and German colonists, to generate what she saw as a robust, independent Afro-Creole culture. That claim went against the conventional wisdom that colonial Louisiana was largely shaped by Haiti and other parts of the French-speaking Caribbean.
“Africans in Colonial Louisiana” won a raft of literary prizes and, surprisingly for a dense (if elegantly written) academic text, became required reading among musicians and artists in New Orleans, who saw it as a road map for the origins of the city’s distinctive culture. It inspired Wynton Marsalis to write the oratorio “Blood on the Fields” (1997), the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize for music.
“For so long there was this tendency, even in the most prestigious academic circles, to see Africans as an abstraction, coming from a simple single place,” Dr. Hall told The New York Times in 2000. “But now we’re starting to see it as a place of great complexity, and the different ethnicities greatly affected the development of African American culture.”
Dr. Hall retired from Rutgers in 1993, but that just gave her more time for her real project: turning those 107,000 entries into a searchable computer database, long before many people could even conceive of such a thing.
It took her another seven years. She worked out of a small house in New Orleans and survived on a series of small grants, digging even deeper into obscure archives on both sides of the Atlantic — the sort of effort that many historians dream of but few can afford, in terms of either money or patience.
“She did the kind of work that in the 20th century only white men were rewarded for,” Nell Irvin Painter, an artist and historian and the author of “The History of White People” (2010), said in a phone interview. “And it is a lot of hard work.”
In 2000 Dr. Hall finally published her Databases for the Study of Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, first on a set of CD-ROMs and later as a website. Her work not only inspired historians to dive much deeper into the early history of American slavery; it also enabled millions of people to discover roots they long thought had been severed.
“I’m hoping this database will help smooth the path for others to make Africans concrete as human beings,’’ she told The Times. “Someday, people will be asking this database questions that I can’t even imagine right now.”
Gwendolyn Midlo was born on June 27, 1929, in New Orleans, the daughter of Herbert Midlo, a lawyer, and Ethel (Samuelson) Midlo, a homemaker. Her father, a Jewish immigrant from what is now Poland, was among the few members of the local legal community willing to defend Black people and labor organizers, and Gwendolyn grew up under his activist influence, bristling against the strictures of Jim Crow segregation.
By high school, she was a member of several local civil rights groups — she once shared a stage with W.E.B. Du Bois — and as a student at Sophie Newcomb College, the women’s institution associated with Tulane University, she helped found a biracial organization linking white colleges like hers with nearby historically Black institutions like Xavier and Dillard.
Though her parents encouraged her activism, they worried for her safety. After she was arrested in 1949 for violating a city segregation ordinance, they sent her to Paris to study piano.
There she met and married Michael Yuspeh, with whom she had a son, Leonard. They soon divorced. At a May Day parade in 1951 she met Haywood Hall, an American civil rights activist who went by the nom de guerre Harry Haywood. They returned to the United States and married in 1956.
Along with her son Haywood, she is survived by her daughter, the historian Rebecca Lorraine Hall, and four grandchildren. Her son Leonard Yuspeh died in 2020.
Harry Haywood was Black, and a Communist to boot, factors that made their relationship a lightning rod for racial animus in the 1950s. They moved to Mexico City, joining a growing colony of self-exiled American leftists. Ms. Hall enrolled at Mexico City College (today the University of the Americas), a progressive institution whose faculty drew heavily from the community of intellectual refugees who had fled Spain during that country’s civil war.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1962 and a master’s a year later, both in Latin American history.
The Halls separated soon after, but they remained married until Mr. Hall’s death in 1985, and before parting they collaborated on a book outlining the need for Black self-determination. Though it was never published, portions of it appeared in 1964 in a small magazine called Soul Book and became part of the foundational texts of the Black Power movement.
Ms. Hall returned to the United States, living first in New York City and then in North Carolina, where she taught briefly at Elizabeth City State College (now Elizabeth City State University), a historically Black institution in the northeast corner of the state.
But after the school’s administration learned of her support for the civil rights movement, and her own radical past, they fired her — a move most likely encouraged by the F.B.I., which by then had a thickening file on her.
She moved with her two children to Detroit and eventually enrolled in the history doctoral program at the University of Michigan. She received her Ph.D. in 1970 and joined the Rutgers faculty the next year.
Among the younger scholars influenced by Dr. Hall is Ibrahima Seck, who met her when he was a high school student in Senegal. Inspired by her work and later encouraged by her personally, he received a doctorate from the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar and, thanks to her recommendation, was named the research director of the Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum in Edgard, La., west of New Orleans.
As a tribute to his mentor, Dr. Seck oversaw the creation of Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a memorial in which the names of each of the 107,000 people in her database are inscribed in granite blocks. Later this year, at her request, her ashes will be scattered at the site.
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