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Robert C. Hayden, prolific author of books about Black history, dies at 84

Robert Hayden, African-American historian.Thomas Herde/Globe Staff

A consummate storyteller, Robert C. Hayden wanted people to learn about everyone who contributed to Black history, not just the celebrated figures.

“It’s nice to read biographies and look for role models, but I think we have to go beyond that elite list of great Black men and women,” he told the Globe in 1992.

“We have to look below the surface and examine the contributions of ordinary individuals,” he said. “I think we could learn a lot by studying what the masses of Black Americans did and how they worked together to change their condition.”

A prolific author and historian whose books include the lauded “African-Americans in Boston: More Than 350 Years,” Mr. Hayden died Jan. 23 in Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. He was 84, lived in Oak Bluffs, and was diagnosed with Lewy body disease several years ago.

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In a 1992 editorial praising “African-Americans in Boston,” the Globe said Mr. Hayden’s book “should be required reading,” and applauded his celebration of “the rich history of survival and leadership that has existed in this city for centuries.”

A former executive director of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, and a former president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, Mr. Hayden wrote more than 20 publications about Black history and culture, often highlighting previously overlooked achievements in scientific research, technology, and medicine.

He emphasized that less prominent people often made significant contributions.

“I completed a major oral history project about three years ago in which I interviewed retired Black railroad workers: Pullman porters and dining car waiters who were part of the early Black labor movement of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s,” he said in the 1992 Globe interview.

“And it’s interesting that many of the skills that these Black men developed through labor organizing were translated into the civil rights movement,” Mr. Hayden said. “A. Philip Randolph, who helped organize the Pullman porters in 1925, became a father of the civil rights movement.”

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Mr. Hayden’s son, Kevin Hayden, the Suffolk district attorney, drove by the MBTA’s Back Bay Station last week to look at Pullman exhibits there that drew from his father’s scholarship.

“It was a walk down memory lane to see that,” Kevin said.

His father, he added, “was an amazing storyteller. And he never told you a story just to tell you a story. There was always a point to it. There was a, ‘This is what you can learn from it.’ "

As a historian, Mr. Hayden was also keenly aware that change can arrive slowly.

“Are Blacks in Boston better off in January 1987 than they were in January 1977 or in January 1967? There are many who would say no, that we don’t find ourselves much better off than we were 20 years ago,” he said in a January 1987 speech when he became president of the Boston NAACP branch.

“We have won the battle of desegregation, but have not yet benefited fully from it,” he added. “We have won the battle for equal opportunity, but still most of those who are in power are white.”

The older of two brothers, Robert Carter Hayden Jr. was born in New Bedford on Aug. 21, 1937.

His father, Robert C. Hayden Sr., worked in the post office, and his mother, Josephine Hughes Hayden, was a teacher.

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He graduated from New Bedford High School in 1955 and went to Boston University, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1959 and a master’s in education in 1961.

About 15 years later, Mr. Hayden completed postgraduate fellowships at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and in the department of urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He married Charlene Roberts-Hayden, they had four children, and the family settled in Newton.

After their marriage ended in divorce, Mr. Hayden lived in the Dudley Square neighborhood in an apartment across the street from the home where one of his grandmothers had lived, a place he had visited as a child during summer vacations.

That proximity became yet another launching point for stories for Mr. Hayden, who examined the history of his family as closely as he did the history of Boston’s Black community.

“Most people don’t know who their third- and fourth-cousins are. Well, he did,” Kevin said. “His love of African-American history was broad to be sure, but it was also personal.”

After graduate school, Mr. Hayden was a middle school teacher before becoming an editor for Xerox’s education division.

He was METCO’s executive director from 1970 to 1973, and then spent several years with the Education Development Center in Newton directing ethnic heritage studies projects for urban school districts.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Hayden directed MIT’s Secondary Technical Education Project, and then served as a Boston Public Schools assistant superintendent.

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For nearly three decades, he also was a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Northeastern University, Boston College, and Lesley University.

He began his publishing career in the early 1970s with three books focusing on Black American scientists, inventors, and doctors.

“And, of course, the school districts across the country and libraries bought my books,” he said in a 2004 interview for The History Makers.

His writings included books about Black history on Martha’s Vineyard and in New Bedford, and he provided the text for publications such as “A Cultural Guide to African-American Heritage in New England.” He received the Boston NAACP’s Distinguished Service Award in 2013.

Mr. Hayden also led tours of key Black history sites on the Vineyard, where he moved full time in retirement.

“He was a very compassionate and caring person, always friendly,” Kevin said. “People always remarked about what a gentleman he was and how polite he was to be around.”

In addition to his son, Kevin, and his former wife, Charlene, Mr. Hayden leaves two daughters, Dr. Deborah Hayden of Attleboro and Karen McAdams of Wellesley; a brother, William of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and five grandchildren.

At noon on Feb. 7, Mr. Hayden’s family will hold a private service that will be live-streamed. A link is available on the website of Davis Funeral Home in Roxbury. His family will later announce a celebration of Mr. Hayden’s life, which will be held on Martha’s Vineyard.

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Decades ago, Mr. Hayden discussed disparities which, if anything, have become acute since then.

“The danger facing Boston is that it may become a city of extremes,” he cautioned in his 1987 NAACP speech. “On the one end, there may be the frighteningly rich and on the other the desperately poor.”

And in his 1992 Globe interview, Mr. Hayden said that one reason why Black teenagers “do not have the direction they should have is that they are not centered in the curriculum. Their history, their culture, is not a part of what they are taught in school.”

He added, however, that school should only provide part of the education for Black students.

“You have to take them out to places like the African Meeting House, or take them to sites on the Black Heritage Trail, or get them to read a poem by Phillis Wheatley about being brought from Africa to America,” he said. “What did she experience? What was life like for her? Poetry, novels, visual materials — it’s very important to expose kids to these kinds of things. Textbooks can get outdated very, very quickly.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.