Elbert Riley Hilliard

Elbert Riley Hilliard


Elbert Riley Hilliard, director emeritus, Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), departed his earthly life March 17, 2024. He was an educator, historical administrator, historic preservationist, and dedicated public servant who spent 39 years with MDAH. At the time of his retirement on December 31, 2004, Elbert was the longest serving State Historic Preservation Officer in the nation.

A visitation will be held at the Madison Methodist Church beginning at 9:30 am March 21, with a memorial service to follow at 11:00 am, along with a brief graveside service at the Montgomery Memorial Cemetery, 500 Locust Lane, Madison, where he will be interred next to his beloved wife of over 61 years, Claire Gibson Nicols Hilliard, who passed away on January 20, 2020.

Elbert is survived by his daughters, Lee Michelle Hilliard of Homewood, AL, and Tessa Lynelle Hilliard Minchew and her husband, Rudy Gauthier of Greensboro, NC, and his first cousins, Colleen Riley Ghormley, of Combine, TX, and Eleanor Riley Lally of Mesquite, TX. In addition to his wife, Claire, Elbert was predeceased by his parents, Elbert Richardson Hilliard and Arlie Riley Hilliard, his two older sisters, Izora A. Hilliard and Mary Melvin Hilliard Gilchrist, and his step-mother, Virginia Younts Hilliard.

Born February 8, 1937, at his Riley grandparents’ home in Lambert, Mississippi, Elbert acquired the nickname “my little buddy,” resulting in friends and colleagues referring to him as “Buddy” throughout his life. Elbert attended school at Anguilla, where he met his future wife, then Claire Nicols. They were married in the Anguilla Methodist Church on August 3, 1958.

In 1958, Elbert graduated from Delta State College with a bachelor’s degree in social studies and physical education. During his freshman year, Elbert was told by his mentor, Dr. Joseph O. Baylen that he should major in history. When Dr. Baylen accepted a position at Mississippi State in 1957, he recommended Elbert to Dr. John K. Bettersworth and Dr. Glover Moore for acceptance into graduate school, an action that had a major influence on Elbert’s life, for it was there in Dr. Moore’s class on historiography that he first learned of the existence of MDAH.

After receiving his M.A. degree in history in August 1959, Elbert and Claire taught in the Natchez-Adams County School System. In June 1960, Elbert and Claire moved to Madison to join the Madison County School System where Claire taught first grade, and Elbert taught history courses and coached boys and girls basketball, baseball, and girls track. Here, he earned the esteem of his students and acquired his second lifetime nickname, “Coach Hilliard.”

Elbert joined MDAH as the curator of history and administrator of the Old Capitol Museum in July 1965, serving under the tutelage of the renowned Charlotte Capers, MDAH’s beloved and highly respected third director. Elbert became the first director of the Division of Historic Sites and Archaeology (now Historic Preservation) in 1970, and in that position initiated and led MDAH’s participation in the National Historic Preservation Program that was established by the U.S. Congress’ enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. He also oversaw the implementation of the State Antiquities Law that has resulted in the preservation of innumerable Mississippi Landmark properties and a recognition by citizens and elected officials of the importance and economic impact of historic preservation.

Elbert became director of MDAH in July 1973 and served in that capacity until his retirement on December 31, 2004. As MDAH director, Elbert also served as Mississippi’s first State Historical Records Coordinator, as secretary-treasurer of the Mississippi Historical Society (a volunteer position that he continued to hold until March 2018), and as a member of the Board of Editors of the Heritage of Mississippi Series since its inception. He had the privilege of working under the leadership of the Board of Trustees president, William F. Winter, and the other members of the MDAH’s non-political board. Elbert frequently mentioned how fortunate he was in having the support of both the board and the talented and dedicated staff members who were committed to the MDAH’s mission and public service.

During his tenure with MDAH, Elbert witnessed its growth from small quarters in the north wing of the War Memorial Building in 1965 to what is now the Charlotte Capers Building in 1971, and then to the new state-of-the-art William F. Winter Building in 2003. He frequently noted that, due to the support of the Mississippi Legislature and visionary citizens across the state, MDAH has evolved into a comprehensive historical agency responsible for duties and programs administered by two or more separate agencies in most states. Since its establishment in 1902, MDAH has only had seven directors, and Elbert considered himself fortunate in having known all of them except for the Department’s first director, Dunbar Rowland. Katie Blount, current MDAH Director, noted Elbert’s unique impact when she said, “Elbert Hilliard led MDAH for 39 years during which MDAH grew into a multi-faceted historical agency with a national reputation for excellence. His work had a profound impact on the effort to preserve, interpret, and promote Mississippi history. He led with humility, compassion, and wisdom, and those of us who served under him loved and admired him for those qualities as well as his enormous impact on this agency and the state.”

On the occasion of Elbert’s retirement, the MDAH Board of Trustees granted him director emeritus status, effective January 1, 2005, and adopted a resolution honoring him for his service. Citing a few of his countless contributions, the Board noted the growth of a multi-faceted historical agency with a national reputation for excellence; his overseeing 17 historic properties, six of which are National Historic Landmarks; his invaluable work with the Mississippi Legislature to strengthen and clarify Mississippi’s laws governing historic preservation, state and local government records, and archival and library security. Former governor and board president, William F. Winter said at Elbert’s retirement, “Elbert has helped make the Department one of the most stable in state government---one that doesn’t change with each administration.”

Governor Haley Barbour, presiding over Elbert’s retirement reception in the rotunda of the Old Capitol Museum, proclaimed January 27, 2005, as “Elbert Hilliard Day.” The Mississippi House of Representatives and the Mississippi Senate adopted concurrent resolutions “commending the legacy of public service of Elbert R. Hilliard and congratulating him on the occasion of his retirement after 39 remarkable years with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.”

Following his retirement, Elbert served as a volunteer at MDAH, receiving in 2012 the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service’s Marsha Meeks Kelly Award for Lifetime Achievement in Volunteer Service, as well as President Barack Obama’s Call to Service Award and Volunteer Service Award in 2011. In 2010, Governor Barbour presented Elbert the Mississippi Medal of Service. At its annual meeting in 2017, the Mississippi Historical Society presented its Lifetime Achievement Award to Elbert.

During his service as MDAH director, Elbert actively supported the Mississippi Heritage Trust as well as the Mississippi Main Street Association and encouraged mayors and local officials throughout the state to request MDAH’s assistance in identifying and preserving the important cultural resources in their respective communities. No one was more responsive than Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler of Madison. At the dedication of the state historical marker for the Montgomery Memorial Cemetery in August 2023, Mayor Hawkins-Butler credited Elbert for educating her on the history of Madison and stated, “We wouldn’t have the Madison we do today if not for him. He gave me insight and courage during all of my battles and told me how important it is to preserve this community. He is my mentor.”

Through the years, Elbert remembered the influence that Delta State had on his life. In May 2005, he received the first honorary doctorate to be awarded by Delta State University and in 2007 was named to the university’s Alumni Hall of Fame.

A lifelong Methodist, Elbert was a longtime faithful member of the Madison United Methodist Church, teaching youth and adult Sunday School classes, serving for many years on the church’s administrative council, the building committee for the new sanctuary, the stained-glass window committee, and as the church historian. In 2009, he received the Mississippi Conference’s Tobias Gibson Award for his significant contributions to the preservation of Methodist history. From 2005 to 2015, he served as chair of the Pearl River Church Historic Council that coordinates the annual Lambuth Day ceremony and oversees the preservation of the historic Pearl River Church that has been designated a World Heritage Landmark by the United Methodist General Conference Commission on Archives and History.

Elbert’s daughters would like to express their gratitude to Dr. Sam Peeples for his longtime care of their father, as well as Dr. Carla Monico and Dr. Hamp Jones; the Reverend Linda Rickman, Madison Methodist Church, for her visits and spiritual support; and the church members active in the Congregational Care Ministry. Special thanks are extended to Carrie and Ray Barksdale, who, following Claire’s death, “adopted” Elbert as their “oldest child”; to Ken P’Pool and the late Dick Durgin for all that they did to help Elbert make it through his loss of Claire, and to all of the many other individuals who provided Elbert with support.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Pearl River Methodist Church & Cemetery Endowment, c/o Methodist Foundation of Mississippi, P.O. Box 2415, Ridgeland, MS 39158; Madison Methodist Church Congregational Care Ministry, 100 Post Oak Road, Madison, MS 39110; William and Elise Winter Endowment for the Two Mississippi Museums, c/o Mississippi Historical Society, P.O. Box 571, Jackson, MS 39205-0571; Mississippi Heritage Trust, P.O. Box 577, Jackson, MS 39205-0577; MDAH Historic Properties Trust Fund, P.O. Box 571, Jackson, MS 39205-0571; or a favorite charity. 

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