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Mississippi Legends: Elbert Hilliard, a...

Mississippi Legends: Elbert Hilliard, a model public servant

By: Brother Rogers - March 24, 2024

  • Brother Rogers says Elbert Hilliard’s success was rooted in his love of people.

When Elbert Hilliard died at age 87 on March 17, the state lost more than the director emeritus of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). It lost the person who probably knew the most about Mississippi history and cared the most about its preservation. He was a model public servant for over half a century whose encyclopedic knowledge of the state’s past was surpassed only by his kindness and humility.

Hilliard grew up in the Sharkey County hamlet of Nitta Yuma before graduating first from Delta State and later from Mississippi State with a master’s degree in history. He lived most of his adult life in Madison in the only home he ever owned with the only woman he ever loved. His illustrious career at MDAH began in 1965, when he was hired by Charlotte Capers, the first woman to lead a state agency in Mississippi.

With his keen appreciation for history, strong work ethic, and impeccable character, Hilliard rose through the ranks quickly and became director of MDAH in 1973. For the next 31 years, he led the state historical agency to new heights, working alongside William Winter, president of the MDAH Board of Trustees. One of his proudest achievements was working with members of the Mississippi Legislature to strengthen the State Antiquities Law, which protects historic resources in Mississippi.

He was instrumental in the creation of a series of grant programs that continue to pour millions of dollars into the preservation of courthouses, historic schools, and historic sites throughout Mississippi. Under his leadership, properties in all 82 counties were added to the National Register for Historic Places. He worked with various governors and first ladies to preserve the Governor’s Mansion.

New properties acquired by MDAH while Hilliard was director include the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, Historic Jefferson College, and the Eudora Welty House & Garden. In the 1980s, he supported Patti Carr Black in creating the groundbreaking civil rights exhibit at the Old Capitol Museum, which was the first permanent display of its kind. In 1998, he supervised the public opening of the long-secret records of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission.

In addition to leading MDAH, Hilliard was secretary-treasurer (de facto executive director) of the Mississippi Historical Society from 1973 to 2017, a span of 44 years. He was managing editor of the Journal of Mississippi History. When I once asked him about writing his memoirs, he quickly replied, “I’m not a writer; I’m an editor.” And he would have surely spelled out those two previous contractions and not begun this sentence with a conjunction.

Elbert Hilliard with Brother Rogers

Hilliard supervised other projects such as the online publication Mississippi History Now, which features short articles on Mississippi history, and the Heritage of Mississippi series of books by scholars about the state’s past. After retiring in 2004, the indefatigable Hilliard continued as a volunteer until the pandemic, winning the President’s Volunteer Service Award among others.

MDAH has experienced great success with the opening of the Two Mississippi Museums—the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. This success is built on the foundation laid by Elbert Hilliard, whose impact on historic preservation is immeasurable.

However, as impressive as his list of accomplishments is, his success was rooted in his love of people. Hilliard truly cared about others. He was kind, generous, and unassuming. As one friend said, “He may be the only diehard Mississippi State fan I know who never said a negative word about Ole Miss.” He looked for the good in people and found it. Hilliard was a dedicated public servant, mentor, and role model. Our state is a better place because he devoted his life to making it so.

About the Author(s)
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Brother Rogers

William Rogers, who goes by the nickname "Brother", became the director of the Programs and Communication Division of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in 2017. From 1990 to 2016, he was the associate director of the John C. Stennis Center for Public Service in Starkville, Mississippi. Before joining the Stennis Center, Brother served as a legislative assistant to U.S. Representative Donald Payne of New Jersey. Brother graduated magna cum laude in 1987 from the University of Alabama, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in economics, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, and was selected as a Harry S. Truman Scholar from Mississippi. He holds a master's degree in public affairs (MPA) from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He grew up in Brandon, Mississippi and was a high school exchange student in Kyoto, Japan.