Harold T. Pinkett (1914-2001)
Douglas Helms, November 2001
Harold T. Pinkett, who died on March 13, 2001, in Washington, D.C., was the first African American archivist at the U.S. National Archives, appointed in 1942. He graduated summa cum laude from Morgan College. He also attended Columbia University, and received an MA in history from the University of Pennsylvania. His first tour at the National Archives proved to be short, as he soon entered the U.S. Army, serving in Maryland, Massachusetts, France, Belgium, the Philippines, and Japan during World War II.
Early in his career at the National Archives, Pinkett worked with the voluminous body of undescribed records that the Department of Agriculture began transferring to the new National Archives building in the 1930s, writing many of the preliminary inventories of the records. The American Historical Review published his article that reviewed the agricultural records, "The Archival Product of a Century of Federal Assistance to Agriculture," in April 1969. Among the records of the Department of Agriculture were the Forest Service records, which documented the forestry career of Gifford Pinchot, the creator and first chief of the Forest Service. Pinkett selected Pinchot as the subject of his doctoral dissertation at nearby American University, earning a PhD in 1953 and winning a prize from the Agricultural History Society. It appeared as Gifford Pinchot: Private and Public Forester (University of Illinois Press, 1970). During the latter part of his archival career, Pinkett was chief of the Natural Resources Branch, which held the records of the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior, and the New Deal agencies such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Work Projects Administration. In addition to supervising the branch's staff, he remained a valued advisor to the scholars, researching agricultural and natural resources topics at the National Archives. His contributions led to his being elected president of the Forest History Society from 1976 to 1978, and of the Agricultural History Society from 1982 to 1983. He was a fellow of the Forest History Society; he was on the editorial board of the Journal of Negro History, 1971–1979; and he served on the Board of Trustees of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, 1972–1992.
Pinkett contributed to the development of archival management in numerous capacities during and after his retirement from the National Archives. He edited the official journal of the Society of American Archivists, American Archivist, from 1968 to 1971; was elected to the society's executive council in 1971; and was elected a fellow of the society. He coedited Research in the Administration of Public Policy, a National Archives publication, in 1972. From 1970 to 1977, he was an adjunct professor in history and archival administration at Howard University and American University. Three mayors of the District of Columbia appointed him to terms on the D.C. Historical Records Advisory Board, beginning in 1978. In 1979 he became an archival consultant for Howard University, Cheyney University, and several colleges affiliated with the United Negro College Fund, National Urban League, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Foundation. He also helped draft legislation for an archival program for the government of the District of Columbia.
After retirement from the National Archives in 1979, his research and writing projects took on a personal tone. He wrote a book-length history of the John Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church in Washington, where he was a member. He wrote an article about his free black ancestors who served in the Union Army during he Civil War and afterward on the frontier. As a member of the Cosmos Club, he served on the history committee and authored and published an article, "Conservationists at the Cosmos Club."
The son of a minister, Pinkett was born in Salisbury, Maryland, on April 7, 1914. Following graduation from college, he taught Latin at Douglass High School in Baltimore, 1938–39. He retained an abiding faith that knowledge of Latin greatly facilitated writing clearly in the English language. When the sentence structure in an archival reference letter displeased him, he might ask a young archivist, "Did you study Latin?" The tone indicated that he anticipated a negative answer. Young archivists at the National Archives who wanted to pursue historical research while working as an archivist found him a model and an inspiration. Scholars of all ages valued his vast knowledge of the records and their relevance to historical research topics.
Just prior to joining the National Archives, Pinkett taught history at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. There he met Lucille Cannady of Wadesboro, North Carolina, whom he married in 1943. She was employed by the U.S. Department of Labor, and she eventually became Chief of the Youth Employment Branch. Other survivors are a sister, Catherine Thomas of Washington, D.C., and many other relatives and friends. Pinkett was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery.
Natural Resources Conservation Service