A Giant in the Black Academy: The Individual and Collective Historical Vision of Rosalyn Terborg-Penn

*This post is part of our online forum organized by Stephen G. Hall honoring the life and work of Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, a pioneering scholar in the field of African American women’s history.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn at Temperance and Woman Suffrage Event (Flickr: U.S. National Archives)

I entered Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland as an introverted, extremely shy, and intensely serious seventeen-year-old in Fall 1986. Unable to speak before large audiences, I often avoided what was for me an ordeal worse than walking on hot coals. Four years later, I emerged from Morgan as a more self-confident individual, proficient in oratory and committed to the life of the mind. Much of this transformation was due to the personal and intellectual socialization I received at Morgan. A great deal more of the transformation was directly attributable to the influence of Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. Her stern and deliberative demeanor transformed a shy and bookish teenager into a student and teacher of history. Her teaching, scholarship, and mentorship continue to shape my worldview and historical vision.

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn was one of many strong scholars in Morgan’s History Department in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. The department included Thomas Cripps, the noted film historian and author of Slow Fade to Black; Suzanne Ellery Chapelle, a noted urban historian in Maryland; Henry Robinson, a Europeanist trained at the London School of Economics, Joann Robinson, author of one of the earliest biographies on A.J Muste, Abraham Went Out; Charles O. Chikeka, an Africanist trained at Columbia University; and Glenn Phillips, a Caribbeanist trained at Howard, among others. This group was complimented by the presence of Benjamin Quarles, who was emeritus during my time at the university. He held office hours in Morgan University’s library, Soper Library. Quarles actively participated in the department, often attending a wide variety of functions.

Against the backdrop of great talent, Rosalyn loomed even larger in our imagination and most important in our lived reality. A small, diminutive woman, we all, at least physically, towered above her. But we all knew she was the real Giant in our midst. Stern, demanding, passionate, engaging and tremendously astute and wily in the ways of history, she stretched out vistas of intellectual possibility. As a teacher, she firmly believed in the Socratic method. Questions were the sine qua non of our existence. In her classes with never more than 10 students, and often fewer, we engaged in endless interrogations of primary and secondary material. We answered questions on the assigned readings and responded to her incisive interrogation about the content, historiography, methodology, conclusions, and implications of the work. We discussed the material, often in intense rounds, and she presided over us — sometimes letting us range far and wide and in other instances curbing our youthful hubris with sober doses of reality. Our engagement with material was never confined exclusively to the classroom. We often debated questions raised in class — from the role of Black women in the suffrage movement to Du Bois’s interpretation of the Black proletariat in Black Reconstruction (yes, we read it over the course of one semester) — on the yard (anywhere on Morgan’s campus), and beyond. Testing was just as exhaustive as the mental labor we exerted daily in her courses. Her take home exams featured four or five expansive questions designed to test and sharpen a range of historical skills: critical and analytical thinking, the ability to analyze and interpret to our knowledge of the relevant historiography, clear writing and expression, and knowledge of methodology, including footnotes and bibliography.

As a scholar, Rosalyn seamlessly merged her pedagogical and research pursuits. Trained at Howard University by Rayford Logan and Martha Putney in the 1970s, her dissertation, “Afro-Americans in the Struggle for Woman Suffrage” was widely used in the profession prior to its publication as African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 in 1998. As students, we were aware of her pioneering role as a creator of African American women’s history through her groundbreaking book, The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images, which she coauthored with Sharon Harley in 1978. Her second book, Women in Africa and the African Diaspora, co-edited with Andrea Benton Rushing, was published in 1987. She assigned large portions of both books in her classes on African American Women’s History and the African Diaspora. She used our discussions in class not only to interrogate the material, but where possible to imagine our place within the profession. She talked about the process of writing a dissertation and publishing books. Looking back, her classes were a practical apprenticeship preparing us to enter the historical profession. An active participant in ASALH and the ABBWH, she would often use class role to discuss events at conferences. We could clearly see the connection between our classroom ruminations and the larger historical profession.

Her role as mentor was not unlike those of teacher and scholar. She pushed us to be our best. She rigorously insisted on good writing, clear thought, and lucid public speaking. I remember one occasion early in my tenure at Morgan where I offered a bumbling public presentation. She stopped the discussion midstream and urged me to get it together — unthinkable in the contemporary world but a lesson I never forgot. Although embarrassed, I knew she only wanted us to do our best. This understanding began with our recognition that nothing but the best was acceptable.

Perhaps the best example of her mentorship involved working with her over two academic years on my honors thesis. I was the Benjamin Quarles Departmental Honor Scholar, which required the recipient to write an honors thesis during the junior and senior years at Morgan. This exercise deepened my understanding of the intersections between 19th and 20th-century Black intellectual life and subsequently became the basis for my future scholarly work. It also gave me practical experience with writing an extended-length paper. Rosalyn was an exacting reader and often required three or four drafts of each chapter before final approval. I spent a considerable amount of time working with her on drafts as she helped me to conceptualize, think, and rethink my thoughts about Black intellectual life. Written in five chapters, the final project was 100 pages in length. Scholars were required to present the thesis publicly. It became very clear to me at the formal banquet why Penn had been so demanding. As I walked to the podium to present a summary of my thesis, I saw none other than Benjamin Quarles seated in the audience. I suspect my presentation was adequate for the occasion, but it impressed upon me the importance of careful preparation and clear presentation. This was not only a lesson for the moment but for a lifetime.

My memories of Rosalyn Terborg-Penn were shaped against the backdrop of my own transformation from a teenager to a young adult. This period is the most important of our lives. Rosalyn appeared as teacher, scholar, mentor, guide, and friend. In this role, she shaped our minds, disciplined our habits, and molded us into historians. Her accomplishments were never merely individual but communal. In this vein, she shaped the trajectory of graduate education at Morgan State. As coordinator of graduate programs, Rosalyn founded Morgan’s MA and PhD programs in History. In addition to continuing to mentor more than 30 students who would go on to receive PhD’s in History, she worked closely with students at Morgan to accomplish the same goal. I had the pleasure of seeing and interacting with Rosalyn on many occasions during my graduate career and my professional life. Most recently at the Black History Luncheons sponsored by the ASALH in Washington. She would smile broadly when we talked. I beamed with pride and reflected on her training. I basked in the rich historical traditions of Morgan State University. She transformed Morgan’s History Department from an undergraduate to a full-fledged graduate program and in doing so left an indelible legacy. She was a mighty tree in our midst. We are greatly diminished as students and scholars of history by her passing.

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Stephen G. Hall

Stephen G. Hall is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Currently he is a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle, North Carolina where he is working on his second book manuscript exploring the scholarly production of black historians on the African Diaspora. He is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (UNC Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @historianspeaks.

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