Rowan legends: Gill was the ultimate scholar-athlete

Published 10:35 pm Monday, June 1, 2020

By Mike London

SALISBURY —  Robert Lewis Gill played on two high school championship teams growing up in Rowan County, may have been one of the finest athletes in Livingstone College history and definitely was one of the greatest scholars.

He was the second Livingstone graduate to go on to earn a doctorate degree. He was the fifth Black American to earn a doctoral degree in political science from the University of Michigan.

He was part of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, not one of the famed pilots who escorted American bombers and shot down German planes, but one of the support personnel. The Tuskegee Airmen, the “Red Tails,” did for the American military what Jackie Robinson did for baseball.

Gill, who wrote enough books and articles to fill a library shelf, had a basic philosophy: “Robert L. Gill stands for the abolition of second-class citizenship, civil rights and personal liberties for all Americans, decent homes, equal employment opportunities regardless of race, creed, color or national origin, complete integration into the mainstream of American society, the alleviation of overcrowded conditions in our schools, economy in government, and stands against gradualism, corruption, police brutality, Communism and Fascism, both foreign and domestic.”

Those words are from 1971, but they’re still relevant. A work in progress.

Gill was born in 1911 in Winnsboro, S.C. That was a railroad town.

Maybe that’s what led to his family relocating to the railroad hub of Spencer, N.C.

Gill’s father, Pervis, was born in 1892, so he was still a teenager when Robert was born. Pervis worked for the railroad as a machinist’s assistant.

Robert Gill became part of the work force in Spencer at 16, as an “engine valve and truck lubricator.”

Gill was a student at Dunbar, the Black school in East Spencer, and became one of the top athletes in a school that had quite a few of them. He played guard for the 1929 Dunbar basketball team that won a state championship and played third base for the Dunbar baseball team that won a state championship. He also starred for the football team. In addition, he was the school’s leading scholar and received a cup as the valedictorian.

Gill’s next stop was Livingstone College. He played football, basketball and baseball for four years. He was an all-conference outfielder in baseball for three years. He was an all-conference football lineman for one year and an all-conference back for two years. He captained all three teams as a senior during the 1932-33 school year. An English major, he received the school’s Scholar-Athlete Award for 1933.

His first teaching job after graduating from Livingstone was in Siler City where he taught English and history at Chatham County Training School. He wore a lot of hats there as assistant principal, athletic director and coach of the school’s sports teams. He was named conference coach of the year.

He was hired as Dean of Men, AD, coach and political science teacher at Livingstone in 1934 and served in those roles in Salisbury through 1936.

He got a Masters degree in history from Michigan in 1937 and added his doctorate in political science from the same institution in 1942. Between earning those degrees, he taught at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College (now Arkansas-Pine Bluff) and Lincoln University (Mo.).

He was a professor and the head of the history and government department at Texas’ Prairie View State College (now Prairie View A&M) when he entered military service in October, 1942, to serve in the signal corps of the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was inducted in Houston and sent to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

In early 1944, Gill was sent to Officers Candidate School in Miami. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant on April 29, 1944, and was assigned to Tuskegee Army Air Field as an administration officer. He served there until July, 1945.

Gill served in a transportation unit in the National Guard and rose to the rank of major.

After the war, he relocated to Baltimore with his wife, Rubye, a music educator with a masters degree from Northwestern. She had been a tennis standout and placed third in a Chicago tournament for Black players in 1934.

Gill taught at Morgan State for 34 years and became head of the political science department. He studied at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland’s law school and was recognized as one of the nation’s experts on the Far East. He lectured or taught at 22 colleges around the world and conducted civil rights seminars in Thailand, Malaysia, Guam and Taiwan.

He received Livingstone’s Distinguished Alumni Awardi 1963.

Gill, the official historian of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and a strong supporter of Livingstone, died in 1983 at 71.

Gill’s son, Walter, broke color barriers in Maryland as a track and field athlete and was the first Black student to graduate from the “City College of Baltimore,” a prestigious prep school. He studied at Morgan State and Syracuse, earned advanced degrees, became a U.S. Army officer and a noted teacher, scholar and author.

Gill’s daughter, Roberta, was president of her high school class, excelled at American University and then went on to law school at the University of Chicago. She’s been an attorney for 48 years and is now an Assistant  Attorney General for the state of Maryland.