Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn – In Memoriam
Scholar, Professor Emerita at Morgan State University,
ASALH Life-Member, and Friend
Reflections by Sharon Harley
In the fall of 1973 as an incoming graduate student in the History Department at Howard University, the first person I met on campus was Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. Like, so many others have shared, before and after her passing, we became fast friends. Like them, Rosalyn made black women’s history our life calling, as she collaborated, encouraged and mentored us. My research trajectory and professional life were drastically transformed as a consequence of the time Roz and I spent traversing the campus, eating at small restaurants (more like diners) on Georgia Avenue, attending class in Douglass Hall (and sharing which professors to take and those to avoid), and conducting research at the Moorland Spingarn Research center and the Library of Congress, and attending annual conferences of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH-always our favorite), the American Historical Association (AHA), the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the Berkshire Conference of Women History (the “Berks”), and other professional conferences. As I listened to Roz’s fascinating accounts of black women’s political activism especially the courageous racialized gender politics of black women suffragists, my interest in the political economy of slavery shifted to studying black women’s labor and activism.
While there were few professors at Howard, in the early 1970s, or anywhere else, for that matter, who knew or had a professional interest in the black women’s history, Roz and I had the privilege on being on Howard’s campus where we enjoyed the unwavering support and mentorship of Dorothy Porter Wesley (special thanks to Janet Sims-Wood for documenting the legacy of the distinguished Dorothy Porter Wesley), Lorraine Williams, Mary Frances Berry, and Arnold H. Taylor, and a superb cohort of fellow graduate students. They included, like Roz, former northern activists Gerald Gill and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, SNCC Freedom Singer Bernice Reagan and activist Janette Hoston Harris, and even a few former Black Panther activists like Paul Coates and myself. It was a great time be a graduate student with Roz and other distinguished scholars, writers, and archivists at Howard University.
As graduate students, in the mid- and late-1970s, Roz and I attended and spoke at various women’s history conferences, we frequently bemoaned the failure of white women’s suffrage historians (like the women suffragists decades earlier) to give more than a passing reference (if any) to the black women. As Roz shared with me and others, black women were omitted who had been present at many women’s suffrage meetings, organized women’s suffrage clubs, promoted the suffrage cause and, indeed, spoke at woman’s rights and woman’s suffrage meetings. In keeping with the spirit of these black women and male suffragists and the Howard (HBCU) spirit, rather than being angry about the situation, we took action. Though we were graduate students, Roz and I decided to publish our own book on the subject—producing the first edited academic volume—what is considered a pioneer text in the field of black women’s history, The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images (1978). The book’s popularity and his commitment to keeping the work alive led Paul Coates of Black Classic Press to reissue the anthology in 1997. Roz and I remain thankful to Paul not only for reprinting the book but for sponsoring a joint book signing for The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images (1988) and Gone Fishin’ (2002) by the world famous black mystery writer Walter Mosely. The Baltimore event was attended by hundreds of book lovers. It did not matter to us that most of the attendees, other than our family members and friends, came for Walter Mosely!
In 1998, Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s decades-long research resulted in the publication of the most highly acclaimed black woman’s suffrage text, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1859-1920. This volume was proceeded by the 1987 conference on Afro-American Women and the vote organized by Ann D. Gordon and John Bracey. Roz wrote the overview of the important volume that followed, African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1965 (1997), edited by Gordon, along with Bracey, Bettye Collier Thomas and others.
Her active research agenda notwithstanding, in the late 1970s, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn helped to organize the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), along with Darlene Clark Hine, Gloria Dickinson, Juanita Moore, Eleanor Smith, and Janice Sumler-Edmond. In addition to these historians, the initial executive committee consisted of Bettye J. Gardner, Sharon Harley, Cheryl Johnson, Sylvia M. Jacobs, Maria A. Brown, and Cynthia Neverdon-Morton.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Bettye Collier Thomas (founding president and director of the Mary McLeod Bethune Museum and Archives), Darlene Clark Hine, and I helped to organize major national black women’s history conferences at Howard University and elsewhere.
Roz embodied in her personal and academic life the importance of extending the black woman’s narrative beyond the U.S. shores. Over the years, Roz had documented and shared accounts of her roots not just in New York City but in Surinam and Amsterdam, but also of her friendships with the many African and Caribbean folks that she met. I joined her in promoting research scholarship about women in Africa and the African Diaspora. In 1983, Roz and I led the ABWH research conference, “Women in the African Diaspora: An Interdisciplinary Perspective,” at Howard University during the ABWH presidency of Nell Irvin Painter. Many of the conference papers appeared in our next co-edited (along with Andrea Benton Rushing) volume, Women in Africa and the African Diaspora (1987). We were fortunate to have the foreword written by Howard University professor and pioneer Diaspora studies scholar Joseph E. Harris. The conference and the edited volume of the papers by the conference participants included the major “who’s who” in what is now the fully-developed field of Africana Studies. In the volume, there were essays by pioneer black women scholars including Africanist/Afro-Caribbeanist Filomina Chioma Steady, Niara Sudarkasa, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Bennetta Jules-Rosette, A. Lynn Bolles, Harriett P. McAdoo, and Sylvia M. Jacobs. Among the conference presenters/moderators were John Henrik Clarke, Thavolia Glymph, Tiffany Patterson, Bettye Collier-Thomas, Deborah McDowell, and Daphne Duval Harrison.
In her overview of the “Women in the African Diaspora” conference in the book, Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn acknowledged that the “cross-cultural study of black women in the New World is still in its infancy.” She spent more than four decades of her academic life studying and promoting research about women in the African diaspora including her own family’s historical narratives, conducting research throughout the African diaspora in the Caribbean, South America, and Europe and helping to organize the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD). In myriad ways, Dr. Natanya Duncan reflects Dr. Terborg-Penn’s diaspora-focused research, her commitment to the fields of black women’s history and Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies, and the exemplary mentorship she gave to Natanya and other graduate students.
Three weeks before this giant of a scholar and organizer’s unexpected transitioning, we had the last of our periodic talks. Long-time friends, we never had to explain why either one of us called. It was simply a matter of calling, and our picking up where we left off). She shared her excitement about attending the upcoming 40th anniversary symposium of the Association of Black Women Historians (special thanks to outgoing ABWH national president Francille Rusan Wilson and the ABWH executive committee for honoring Roz at the conference). Since the conference was held in Los Angeles, she expressed her eagerness to go there to see her daughter Jeanna Penn, her grandson, and son-in-law. In fact Jeanna attended the conference with her mother. Roz told me about upcoming plans to see her family members in Amsterdam and elsewhere. She looked forward to attending the upcoming ASWAD conference (after retiring, she often alternated between attending ASALH and ASWAD meetings). I shared with her my plans to join her at the next ASWAD meeting and to drive to Columbia, Maryland (rather than our usual–meeting half-way between Columbia and Washington, D.C) for our regular catching-up lunches.
Prior to this last conversation, I was routinely reminded of Roz and the days we spent laughing, learning from each other, and working on various projects together. She always impressed me with her generosity and especially with her wide-ranging stellar scholarship. Around the time we spoke, I was finishing an essay on African American women and the suffrage. In preparation for writing, I had recently re-read her major work on African American women and the vote–her monograph, journal articles, and various edited volumes including our pioneer co-edited volume. Ironically and sadly, I finished the article the day she passed. My revisions were made in the midst of tears for my hat-wearing friend who like, many other scholars and people in and outside the academy, we owe a huge debt of gratitude and thanks.
*UPDATE – Due to the forecast of inclement weather, the memorial service will be postponed. Please check here for updates.