No Longer Invisible, An African American Woman’s Journey

*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 in front of Anna J. Cooper exhibit at Anacostia Neighborhood Museum 1982 (Smithsonian Institution Archives: Photo by Chris Capilongo)

Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn transcended teaching, researching, and mentoring. She was a force of nature. Witty, observant, biting, and inquisitive, she challenged, encouraged, and modeled the life of an activist-academic in the tradition of Africana scholars in general and the amphibious life of HBCU humanities scholars in particular. Her inspirations were scholars. Women and men such as Drs. Lorraine A. Williams, Iva Jones, Irene Diggs, Dorothy Porter Wesley, Benjamin A. Quarles, John Henrik Clarke, Arnold Taylor, Sylvia Jacobs, Janice Sumler Edmonds, Janet Sims-Wood, Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Sharon Harley, and others formed her community and accountability cohort. These senior scholars established the idea of limitless possibilities and her contemporaries joined her at times while others innovated their own potentials in discovering those limitless areas. In concert with her generation, she enlarged the corpus of articles, monographs, syllabi, and potential fields of study. Dr. Terborg-Penn’s heart was not consumed with the pursuit of vain glory or reputation, but authentic scholarship and cultivation of future scholars who would speak truth to power, as informed, articulate, rigorous, and racially conscious thinker-activist teachers.

Dr. Terborg-Penn did not have her first African American woman instructor until graduate school. Dr. Elsie M. Lewis, a graduate of Fisk University, taught at George Washington and Howard University serving as a specialist in the history of the American Negro and of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The field of African American history was not new but hidden from Dr. Terborg-Penn’s view during her early graduate school experience. In pursuit of more information on “scholars on Negro history” in Washington, D.C., she learned that historians are not truly objective because of internal prejudices. In that moment Dr. Terborg-Penn resolved to live her nationalistic scholarship — out loud, unapologetically, and historically sound.

Graduate classmate Sharon Harley wrote the following:

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 of being on Howard’s campus where we enjoyed the unwavering support and mentorship of Dorothy Porter Wesley, Lorraine Williams, Mary Frances Berry, and Arnold H. Taylor, and a superb cohort of fellow graduate students. They included, 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.

Her unexpected passing in December 2018 rose from the terrestrial and digital ground like a mushroom-cloud in random text message murmurings and emails, to confirmed postings on Facebook and social media outlets. Her former students sounded off throughout the days, weeks, and months after her passing. Some Facebook posts championed her heroism. Wanda Williams wrote: “Dr. Penn was a fighter. She fought ‘with pride and with courage’ for herself, to provide for her family and to support her academic community. She fought for the promise of liberty she believed this country could fullfil as a responsibility to diaspora women. We should honor her best by picking up the baton and nurturing the seeds she left behind planted in soul she carefully toiled and loved!” Others saluted her benevolence: Isaiah Imani wrote, “I was never in her classroom, so many times she reached out to me here on Facebook to let me know she was watching.”

Dr. Terborg-Penn lived her life in connection and connectivity to Africana people. Initially desiring a career in science and medicine but after experiencing the implicit bias and the lowered expectations of science faculty at her undergraduate institution, she turned to history with the Argus-eye of a scientist. How appropriate that a detailed, critical thinker and budding nationalist would turn and embrace a sepia Clio at the height of the modern Civil Rights Movement and anti-colonization struggles at home and abroad. A member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., Dr. Terborg-Penn employed the larger sense of sisterhood and community to all of her students and colleagues. TaKeia Anthony wrote: “I’m so grateful to Dr. Terborg-Penn because she adopted me as a mentee when my mentor and her friend Dr. Sylvia M. Jacobs passed away. Dr. Penn stepped in and gave me support and tough love when I really needed someone and when I least expected it.”

In her direct confrontation with the sexism of some African American male scholars and racism of some white women scholars, she co-founded the Association of Black Women Historians. The ABWH sought to harness the strength, interest, and affirming power of the collective to advance the then-fledgling study of African American women’s history, which was marginalized by white women historians or cloaked by imposing omission by Black male historians. Her promotion of racialized gender consciousness did not impede her from reaching out to and cultivating male students as comprehensive scholars. Solomon Omo-Osagie II wrote: “[s]he was singularly responsible for my attending and completing my doctorate at Morgan. She played a crucial role in guiding me to becoming the first male to earn a doctorate in history from Morgan. Once she identified you as a serious scholar in training, she was relentless in her encouragement and support. She was loyal to friendship and scholarship. I will miss her greatly.” Manu Ampim wrote: “In memoriam to my professor! I am very sad and surprised to hear the news of Dr. Penn’s passing, and my condolences to her family. She was my undergraduate and graduate professor at Morgan State University, and she taught me the methodology of primary research. I would often visit her office or home in Columbia, MD to drop off assignments, and she would use the opportunity to give me additional insight about both the official and UNOFFICIAL aspects of the disciplines of history and African American Studies. Also, there is no need to elaborate that her classroom insights about Black women’s history were priceless, as she is a pioneer in this field.”

Brian C. Morrison reflected, “Dr. Penn was my mentor, advisor and friend. She guided me through both my masters and doctoral studies. She was a master teacher that truly loved her work and genuinely cared for her students. The world has lost one of its giants.” Doug Leftridge wrote, “Dr. Terborg-Penn was my ROCK at Morgan! Because of her kindness, wit, sense of humor and understanding, I grew as a human being and as a Black man. She made me PROUD of myself. A giant has transitioned to a new life. We are diminished.”

The “we” Morrison referenced in microcosm is Morgan State University. Morgan is the place of Dr. Terborg-Penn’s deepest academic roots. Hired by Benjamin A. Quarles in 1969, Dr. Terborg-Penn taught and innovated classes in Africana history and culture. The Spokesman, Morgan’s student newspaper reported the following:

Rosalyn Penn, a member of the department of History is sponsoring a course dealing with the history of the black woman as it has developed in America. [She] is required by the history department to indicate evidence of student support of a course of this type before it will be added to the College curriculum. Consequently, she has been holding periodical meetings dealing with the proposed content of the course and attempting to gauge the degree of student interest in it. Professor Penn states that the purpose of the course will be: to correct the distortions about the role of black women in U.S. history and about the relationship between black men and black women; to introduce the student to topics and areas of study in black woman’s history; and to fill the gaps in current woman’s history.

The same 1981 issue of the Spokesman announced a statewide conference on “Learning Needs of the Black Women,” where poet Lucille Clifton was a guest speaker. The course was approved, and the 1982 course catalog indicates that the African American Women in U.S. History course would “analyze the role of Black women in the development of the U.S. with an emphasis on the themes of African American and Women’s history with attention to the African background and contemporary issues.”

Dr. Terborg-Penn received her B.A. degree in history from Queens College, City University of New York; a M.A. degree in United States diplomatic history from the George Washington University; and her Ph.D. in American history from Howard University. She was an engaged student on all of her academic campuses, involved in NAACP activities, student anti-racist protests, and civil rights demonstrations. Her 40-year teaching career at Morgan State University resulted in innovating courses on African American women, gender studies, and oral history methods. She served as Chairman of the History Department, and during her tenure, she developed the first Ph.D. program at Morgan for history students. A published scholar, her notable work African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 remains a standard bearer in the field of suffrage/political history for its nuanced racial and economic aspects.

In November 1978, the Spokesman celebrated Dr. Terborg-Penn on the completion of her Ph.D. The article notes that her interest in women’s history stemmed in part from a 1974 oral history project investigating the 1919 assault of Mary Ewell. In Wilson, North Carolina, Ewell, an African American school teacher, was slapped by a white superintendent. The end result was the formation of the Independent School by the African American community. Funded through private monies and housed in an African American-owned building, the school existed from 1919 to 1926. In interviewing Georgina Burke, the playwright, Dr. Terborg-Penn realized the power African American women and the community wielded against injustice. The Spokesman article concluded that Dr. Terborg-Penn’s “firm interest in the historical perspective of the Black woman and her contributions to Black America is deeply entrenched, and that by learning the past one can learn a lot more about themselves.”

In essence, her zest for excavating the lives of Africana women spoke to the souls of women and men. Their voices, travails, and triumphs informed and impelled rising generations to go further, reach higher, and blaze trails into a promised tomorrow for those long gone and those yet to come. Dr. Terborg-Penn blazed such a trail with a sankofa-minded spirit for the ancestors, the living, and those yet to come, and we all are grateful beneficiaries of her legacy.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Ida E. Jones

Ida E. Jones is a historian and University Archivist at Morgan State University. She previously served as an assistant curator of manuscripts at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. Jones is the author of several books on African Americans, primarily in Washington, D.C., the most recent of which is William Henry Jernagin in Washington, D.C.: Faith in the Fight for Civil Rights (The History Press, 2016). She conducts workshops for organizations interested in preserving their history and is an enthusiastic supporter of biography who seeks to promote micro-biographies about forgotten and intriguing people. Follow her on Twitter @Ida39J.

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