‘An attitude of spreading light’: Louisville remembers local historian Walter Hutchins
Walter Hutchins, a Louisville historian, died last week at the age of 91.
Family and people close to him confirmed his death with WFPL News.
Hutchins received the Louisville Historical League’s Heritage Award in 2005 and was part of a team of historians who organized and compiled the “Self-Guided Tour of Louisville’s Civil Rights History” brochure. One of his most celebrated contributions to local culture and history is the annual African American History Month Cultural Events Calendar booklet, a comprehensive listing of events, exhibits and talks happening around the state every February.
Years ago, he told the Courier Journal he began the booklet after learning about local Black History Month happenings around Louisville after they already happened.
“I suggested to some people, how would it be if somebody made a list of everything that was going to go on in February, in Black History Month. They said, ‘That would be good. Make sure you send me one,’” Hutchins told the newspaper.
What started as about 10 pages of events grew to be several dozen pages, and a crucial resource for many that celebrated and uplifted Black voices and history.
His son, Washington, D.C.-based artist Imar Hutchins, said his father was “trying to address a need that he saw.”
“Namely that was not just keeping alive, [but] bringing back to life a lot of history that was under people's noses, but they were unaware of or not even known, much celebrated in any way,” said Imar Hutchins, adding that that work included historical tours and postcards, as well as collaborations with local Black-led organizations.
He said his father instilled a love of history in him – he has incorporated a number of the historical archives and documents his father saved into his collage-based art.
“He instilled [that love for history] in a lot of people,” Imar Hutchins said. “He’s one of those conduit-type of spirits, like a griot, the kind of spirit that keeps the history alive."
The historian also sat on the board of the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in Louisville the last several years, and executive director Aukram Burton considered him a mentor.
“He had love for his people, love for his history, the history of his people, and he was dedicated to making sure that that history was passed on,” Burton told WFPL. “Baba Walter was a fantastic person. I've learned so much from him… and I will miss him.”
Burton said Hutchins was a good listener and a spiritual man “in the sense that he basically treated everyone the same. He had an attitude of spreading light.”
KCAAH posted about Hutchins’ death over the weekend on Facebook: “One who has lived a life like Baba Walter never truly dies but crosses a bridge into eternal life as an ancestor. May it ease our sadness a bit to know that the memories of Baba Walter will be yet another bridge between our world and the world of our ancestors.”
He was a part of a larger legacy, “the continuum of griots that have been instrumental in keeping the community together through knowledge and history,” Burton added, putting him in symbiosis with other local luminaries like Hutchins’ father-in-law and Imar Hutchins’ grandfather, the late civil rights leader Lyman Johnson.
Hutchins advocated for intergenerational dialogue, the preservation of institution knowledge so it could be shared with younger people, and that’s something Burton hopes to do more of at the center as one way to remember the late historian.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer posted on Twitter Sunday that he was sad to hear of Hutchins’ death.
“He was a gentle and determined soul who uplifted us all as he honored and worked for the legacy of Black Louisville,” the mayor wrote.
Women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Catherine Fosl, who was also the founding director of the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research at the University of Louisville, said Huchins was “among the finest people I’ve ever known.”
“I learned a lot of Louisville history from him that’s never taught in school — not even grad school,” Fosl said in an email to WFPL.
Tom Owen, an archivist for regional history at U of L’s Archives and Special Collections, worked with Hutchins on several projects, including the self-guided tour of the city’s civil rights history. He described Hutchins as someone who was soft-spoken, warm and “absolutely focused on a goal or result.”
He feels Hutchins’ Black History Month calendar is an important part of the historian’s legacy as it was “a way that, in one place, you could see how the entire community was celebrating black history.”
“If we want to do anything for Walter, it would be to carry on that legacy of storytelling, even when it's uncomfortable,” Owen added.
The Kentucky Center for African American Heritage will hold a celebration of life for Hutchins in February. Aukram Burton said the center has been working on an exhibition focused on Hutchins’ research, which will be on display through the spring. Burton also is working on a documentary featuring interviews he had conducted with Hutchins, and said KCAAH will continue the annual Black History Month event booklet starting in 2024.
“I'm so thankful that he persevered and did that for [decades], which is a legacy that we must carry on,” Burton said.
Imar Hutchins is happy to know his father will be honored in this way and his work will be carried forward: “it’s beautiful.”