On December 25, 2018, ASWAD lost a founding member, and African American studies lost a major pioneer. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, or “Roz” as friends often called her, was a noted historian and activist; a passionate, committed, disciplined scholar, as well as a ground-breaking figure in expanding the profession. Rosalyn’s scholarship encompassed a front-and-center diasporic perspective. Her Women in Africa and the African Diaspora: A Reader, co-edited with Sharon Harley, Andrea Benton Rushing and published in 1987, was an original clearing-house for new perspectives on women from both sides of the Atlantic. The anthology, revised and enlarged in 1996, signified a challenge and a shift from depicting Black women as historical victims; and instead using an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural perspective to reveal women’s strategies, adaptations, theories, cooperation, subversions and courage in combatting oppression in all of its formulations. As many know, the volume grew out of the first national symposium held by a new an organization that Roz co-founded in 1979: Association of Black Women Historians, which is now thriving.
Rosalyn Terborg-Penn wrote ground breaking scholarship. Her first volume, mentioned above, was an original perspective on women in the diaspora. In later years, her articles on suffrage culminated in an award-winning book in 1998. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920, is to date, the only book that revives the roles of African American women in the long, historical struggle for the franchise. Rosalyn not only analyzes the challenges Black women faced when attempting to work with white women. She reveals how consistently Black women espoused universal suffrage, even as white women supported lynching and adopted an increasingly narrow attitude toward embracing suffrage legislation that largely excluded African American women. This valuable and pioneering work advanced our knowledge of the political lives and works of Black women activists over two generations. Rosalyn’s recent work has involved writings on race and race relations in Suriname.
Rosalyn spent her academic career at Morgan State University. She retired a few years ago. However, her reputation as mentor and advisor remains legendary. From 1989 through 1996 she was the Project Director of the Ph.D. in history program and as Campus Coordinator organized with Cornell University the Cornell-Morgan Distance Learning Project. She has greatly impacted the lives and professions of numerous students. Last September, journalist April Ryan, a graduate of Morgan State University, was speaking at Cornell University. Somehow in conversation, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s name came up. Ryan’s comment was that Rosalyn was her mentor and greatest influence while at Morgan State. Rosalyn’s commitment of the importance of studying the African diaspora was solidified when she became a founding member in 2000, of The Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora. She had previously attended ASWAD’s very first organizing meeting in 1998 on the University of Georgia at Athens campus. She was one the three signatories (along with Mike Gomez and Robin Kelly) on ASWAD’s articles of incorporation in the state of New York. Roz served on the ASWAD Board from 2000 to 2007.
Her service on the Board was invaluable, as ASWAD attempted to position itself as an organization that highlighted diaspora scholarship, activism, performance and the myriad areas of the Black experience historically and contemporarily throughout the world. Our mission was predicated on an inclusive vision to bring ASWAD to various corners of the diaspora and Roz was so very important to this great and rewarding challenge. To ASWAD she brought her wide range of experience as someone who had already successfully founded a major national organization. Her prescient insights, compelling ideas, no nonsense push-back and intelligence were unmatched.
I offer one example of how wonderful Roz was to work with in a one-on-one situation. In 2007, the Fourth Biennial ASWAD Conference was scheduled to meet in Barbados. Roz, Mike and I comprised the Program Committee. As our founding director, fellow committee member Mike Gomez, was extra busy and also part of the local arrangements committee. The sheer number and excellence of the paper/panel submissions made this a daunting task. It seemed like everyone wanted to go to Barbados. We reached a panic point of running out of panel slots for some excellent submissions. Roz suggested that the two of us “run with this thing.” We needed to come up with ways to expand the program without changing the time frame rather than reject first rate submissions. We spent much of the summer on our computers, doing long distance arranging and re-arranging of the program, doing format changing, etc. Thanks to Roz’s keen sense of detail, creativity, and organizational abilities, we pulled it off. Even today I am still not sure how such a truly enriching if taxing accomplishment was done, except it was a testament to Rosalyn.
Rosalyn remained devoted to ASWAD. She attended our November, 2016 biennial conference in Seville, Spain and was planning to be in Williamsburg, Virginia for the momentous 2019 conference. Her feisty physical presence will be sorely missed. But Sister Roz will be there, along with our dearly departed founding Brother Sterling, both of whom joined the ancestors in 2018.