But foremost he was a preacher. His career included tenures at three of the nation’s most historically significant Black churches, including the last 14 years at Atlanta’s West Hunter Street Baptist Church, home of noted civil rights leader, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy from 1961 to 1990.
“I don’t think Toussaint would’ve ever been a modern age, big-church preacher,” said Pastor Ellis Washington, formerly of Atlanta. “In terms of relating to pop culture, or the latest rapper, that wasn’t Toussaint. He never dumbed down the language — he used language to elevate you. And if he used a word you didn’t understand, then you’d best look it up.”
Dr. Toussaint King Hill Jr., 61, died Oct. 27 of complications from gastric cancer, for which he’d been diagnosed two years ago. He was born June 26, 1959, in Detroit, the only child of Nella Mae Hill and Rev. Toussaint King Hill Sr., whose mother was Cleo King, sister of Martin Luther (Daddy) King Sr.
He and his father were named for Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the slave revolution that brought Haiti independence from France in 1804.
Hill Jr, had memorized the 1,667 words of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech while still in elementary school. By the time he entered the predominantly-white Lutheran West High, he was experiencing the early stirrings of a call to ministry and knew his path.
Hill’s mother died during his senior year, and when Daddy King came to Detroit for the funeral, he promised to “make some calls” and get him into Morehouse. But Hill replied he’d already applied and been accepted to what was essentially the family college. As his wife, Laurel Hill, said recently, “I think he showed [King Sr.] that even at 17 he knew what he wanted, and he didn’t expect a handout or a heavy lift.”
When he arrived on campus in the summer of 1977 he was already licensed to preach. Early on he met Washington, later a gospel radio announcer at Atlanta’s WAOK and host of “Quiet Storm” on V-103, and today pastor of St. Paul A.M.E. Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“I remember one night,” Washington said, "when Toussaint and I went to West Hunter to hear Otis Moss Jr. (famed pastor, civil rights activist, theologian, Morehouse grad) preach. I don’t think we had $5 between us. So the choice was, do we put the money in the plate or do we use it to get something to eat.
“We were both hungry, so we let the plate pass and tried to sneak out the side door," Washington said. " Dr. Abernathy sent two deacons after us and we knew we were in trouble. But then we heard Abernathy say, ‘You boys stick around for awhile. We’re having a fish dinner downstairs.’ "
Hill graduated from Morehouse in 1981 with a double major in religion and political science. He went on to earn a Masters of Divinity. His first pastoral assignment was at Second Baptist Detroit, known as the last stop on the Underground Railroad, having hosted some 5,000 escaping slaves before their eventual departure to Canada.
Next, he pastored Baptist Temple Church in Pittsburgh before returning to Atlanta as assistant pastor at Ebenezer Baptist, where he met Laurel Hord, whom he wed in 2005. It was the second marriage for both — Hill had two sons by his first marriage.
He moved to West Hunter Street and after a brief internship became senior pastor on July 26, 2006.
“Toussaint often wondered why it had been his path getting called to historic churches,” Laurel Hill said. "When you’re a creative being, sometimes you can feel boxed in. But he was gradually leading the church in a different way, and a lot of that was through his passionate preaching.
“He always kept his sermons at 30 minutes,” she said. "He always had three points, weaving in current events and relating them to scripture. He would take notes during the week and if he got the content he needed, the spark he was looking for, he’d look up at me and say, ‘that can preach.’ "
Hill was diagnosed with cancer in 2018, and except for a three-month sabbatical at the end of 2019, he didn’t miss a Sunday. He preached his last sermon in March. A private person, he told very few about his illness, to the point that practically no one found out until he died.
“He felt,” said Laurel, “that when preaching the word, when attempting to encourage and inspire, nobody needs to be thinking about their pastor’s personal life.”
Hill is survived by his wife, Laurel Hord Hill, his sons, Toussaint King Hill, III, (Miranda), and Thaddeus Kornell Hill and granddaughter Eden Elizabeth Hill.