Gloria Harper Dickinson, Institution-Builder
William Jelani Cobb, Ph.D.
“Exploring Herstory: The Scholarly Legacy of Dr. Gloria Harper Dickinson”
April 23, 2009
The College of New Jersey
When Dr. Gloria Harper Dickinson made her transition on January 18, 2009 she left behind an amazing, inspiring and deeply important body of contributions. Those who knew her as a friend, mentor, wife, professor, administrator, and scholar can, no doubt, point to her kindness, her truth-telling spirit, her dedication to the causes she cared about. It is an unspoken truth that historians become subject to our own protocols after we pass on. And a difficult one that Gloria has become a part of the historical tradition that she dedicated her life to preserving. It is a comment on her commitment and character that she remained loyal to her causes and institutions not for years, but for decades. Few of us remain at a single institution for a decade – Gloria served this one for three. As her colleagues, friends and students there is little I can tell you about Gloria’s character, commitment and generosity that you don’t already know. As a historian, I find it worthwhile to think about her in the context of her times, to muse about the ways in which future observers may point to her as an example of so much that we find to be important in the times we live in and the communities we serve.
I was once told that the Ph.D. is like a driver’s license, once you gain one you can travel far beyond the place where it was granted. (It was meant to convey the importance of inter-disciplinarity and that one’s curiosity need not rigidly conform to the boundaries of a field, though admittedly, at other points I’ve said that it should be more like the driver’s license in that the DMV requires a periodic renewal for quality control reasons.) Gloria used her degree in the former sense – she studied European history at the City College of New York and then completed her graduate work in African Studies at Howard University. But she roamed far beyond the narrow disciplinary boundaries. To borrow a metaphor she would find apt, she used the intellectual world as a kind of buffet table, finding new and interesting variations and flavors and in this sense she had a truly distinguished palette. African American studies, religious and spiritual practices, culinary history, black women’s history and digital and multimedia pedagogy were nestled onto the same plate, blending together, each influencing the seasoning of the other.
There is, of course, a unifying thread in these diverse pursuits. Gloria Dickinson was, what they once would have called a race woman. It is not uncommon for us to find personal ties to our scholarship; the choice of scholarly topic is sometimes a bit of a personality profile as well. But in the case of Gloria, I think it is possibly the other way around, that we can’t properly appreciate her scholarly contributions without understanding who she was as a person. In the tradition of the race women of old, she placed the advancement of the communities she cared for at the center of her priorities. InTelling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower, Deborah White argues that black women have traditionally had a more difficult route to telling their own truths about the past. Writing about the 19th century black club women, historian White remarked that “[this] cohort of intelligent, articulate women were revisionist historians before the history of black women was recorded. Their very bodies stood in opposition to a national script that held women to be immoral and reproachable.”
Dr. Dickinson believed that scholarship served a vital role in our lives. But we would be remiss to overlook the way that her life – her grace, tireless commitment and regal personal bearing – marked a commonality with that early generation of women who were historians without written history. It is an old injunction of our craft that we must heed history lest we repeat the mistakes of the past, but Gloria Dickinson went beyond that – she lived according to the responsibilities and mandates that her particular history as a black woman bequeathed to her. It is in this light that we can understand her steadfast and visionary leadership of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, her stewardship of the African American Studies department at the College of New Jersey and her abiding commitment and service to her beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. They form a natural outgrowth of her intellectual vision, a nexus between her scholarly interests and her human ones.
Any fair assessment of Gloria Dickinson has to begin with the title institution-builder. And again, this role was key to understanding both her scholarly interests and her personal ones. It is no coincidence that AKA occupied such a treasured place in her heart as a historian – she no doubt saw some of herself in that small band of women at Howard University who were called to uplift the black community through service and by example. Writing about the founders of her sorority she noted:
In fact all the BGLOs defined a mission that included service, in sharp contrast to the social foci of white fraternities and sororities. So strong was this commitment that, following Alpha Kappa Alpha’s 1913 lead, other BGLOs also incorporated in order to establish chapters not only on other campuses but also in other cities. This allowed members to continue their affiliation beyond their undergraduate days “for the good of the race.”
Any of us who knew Gloria Dickinson understood that service was at the core of who she was. And while she cultivated a broad array of interests, we can find commonalities in the arenas of African Diaspora studies, black women’s history and technology. As a historian she too fit within a historical context. Again White is instructive, writing:
The civil rights movement and the subsequent women’s rights movement pried open the doors of the ivory tower and the history profession as well. They were the causal factors behind the entry of blacks and women into higher education in greater numbers than ever before, making it possible fore them to establish the all-important foundation for academic careers. The demand for a more inclusive American history that accompanied the rights movements began the long process that made black and women’s history legitimate areas of inquiry. It did not happen overnight, no did established academics and historians yield ground without a fight. The rights movements provided the political and ideological justification for the entry of women and minorities, but it was up to individuals, usually isolated on predominately white campuses to turn politics into praxis.
The discipline of African American Studies is a direct outgrowth of the activism of the 1960s. And the generation of black women scholars who entered the academy in the early 1970s found a particular set of challenges awaiting them. In time the field evolved and changed, African American studies programs became staples of college campuses, the field grew recognizable and respected enough to produce academic celebrities. On one level this is a marker of success and a tribute to the pioneers who toiled amid often hostile circumstances. But it was people like Gloria who remained the vital link, who consistently kept the field anchored to its roots in communities and neighborhoods, in a broader lineage of struggle and activism. She, to borrow a vernacular term, kept it real.
The clearest example of this is to be seen in Dr. Dickinson’s work as a board member and as President of the Association for the Study of African American Life & History. As the oldest black scholarly organization in the country, ASALH is a vital link to our roots in the academy. In carrying on the legacy of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, we see ourselves as invested with the weight of a great responsibility. But prior to her time as President the Association had suffered from declining membership, declining participation in the annual conferences and only sporadic publication of the Journal of Negro History, now called the Journal of African American History. Gloria Dickinson brought a number of key innovations to the organization. She recruited a new, capable Executive Director and, most importantly, used her formidable networking skills in the service of attracting new members or reconnecting with previous ones.
Those who know her would not be surprised to learn that she also was the force behind moving the registration and panel organization for the conference onto the internet – a move that immediately increased the number of paper submissions and the attendance at the annual conference. This translated into much-needed revenue for the Association.
Additionally, she found a new home and new editorship for the Journal and was responsible for the subsequent change for sporadic to regular publication – which also increased the Association’s visibility, revenue and overall stability. Her efforts yielded the John Blassingame Prize which is awarded annually for scholarship utilizing multimedia platforms – and she was responsible for gaining funding for it from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Beyond these notable accomplishments, she built a bridge between ASALH and the National Council of Black Studies, seeing a shared mission and overlapping goals between the two organizations. She convinced members of each organization to participate – and eventually sit on the boards – of the other. I learned a good bit about political maneuvering from Gloria while serving on the Board with her. She was skillful at moving her agenda forward and I can say without exaggeration that she usually got what she wanted. I gradually gained her ear which at some points had comical implications, for instance, the time when she became convinced that the Deltas on the board were voting as a bloc to defeat any measure put forward by an AKA.
It should also be noted that AKA did not function solely as an outlet for service. She brought her scholarly talents to the sorority as well. In serving as the national archivist, she was responsible for organizing, cataloging and preserving the monthly publication, The Ivy Leaf for the years 1921-1998. At the time of her passing she was serving as the International Regional Director of AKA and had already become a vital portion of that organization’s history. In an essay titled “Pledged to Remember” tracing the history of Black fraternities and sororities, Dr. Dickinson remarked that these organizations have served as vital repositories of African traditions, both consciously and unconsciously. Her work as an AKA was, thus, part of her overall work in strengthening the ties of communities throughout the diaspora.
This is also, of course, part of her overall commitment to black women’s history, seen in her life membership in the Association of Black Women Historians. She served as a key and early supporter for ABWH. In addition to her early support, she continued to contribute, serving as the webmaster for ABWH well into her illness. She brought, in the words of Elizabeth Clark Lewis, the current President of the organization, a deep and abiding commitment to black women’s history and innovative research.
Not content to simply explain this research, Gloria literally brought it to life. She conducted tours and seminars, workshops and discussions, traveling the diaspora like a detective, putting together disparate clues to the past.
It must also be noted that by inclination and by calling, Gloria Dickinson was a mentor. Our late dean of historians John Hope Franklin wrote that the first generation of black scholars sought simply to establish the humanity of black people. Those who came after saw scholarship as part of a brief for black citizenship. A succeeding generation expanded the dimensions of the field, bringing gender and class into the foreground as analytical lenses. And in each of these instances mentorship of the succeeding set of scholars was seen not just as a responsibility but an imperative. During my time as a graduate student I was inclined to remark that “graduate advisors are like viruses – they don’t want to destroy you, they just want to get inside you and replicate themselves.” It is to her enduring credit that Dr. Dickinson did not take the viral route to mentorship.
When I first met Gloria in 2003 – fittingly enough, on Sapelo Island – I had literally completed my Ph.D. only weeks earlier. She was sitting on a porch, enjoying seafood and telling a tale of a feral cat that managed to invade her home and terrorize her and her husband. This dissolved into a debate about whether raccoons or feral cats posed the more difficult domestic concern. At some point, however, she subtly turned the conversation toward my background, our common roots in Queens, New York, my goals as a historian and how I might best achieve them. In the ensuing years she proved invaluable as a strategist and co-conspirator in my academic undertakings. This was most clearly the case when I began navigating a thorny, politically infused pre-tenure review. And her insight into the process was a significant part of me later earning tenure at my institution. On one level, it is the job of the senior professor to provide guidance to junior faculty but this was – as we both understood – part of a larger undertaking, one deeply connected to the shared responsibility of scholarship and community.
As a personal aside, Gloria’s mentorship was not reserved for purely academic developments. She told me more than once that when I was ready to settle down she “knew the perfect woman for me.” And in another more recent instance, she called me from her sick bed to let me know that she disapproved of a particular individual whom I had begun dating. She was, in Gloria’s coinage, “wifty” which roughly translates into a combination of flighty and difficult. In that – as in so many other things – she proved to be correct. Months later, knowing her disregard for said individual, I jokingly urged Gloria to keep up her spirits or I would not only resume dating the woman in question, I would in fact, immediately propose to her.
There are, as I mentioned at the outset, few things I can tell you that you don’t already know. But as a historian I recognize that common knowledge bears repeating lest it become obscure knowledge and ultimately forgotten knowledge. We can say this much about Dr. Gloria Harper Dickinson: she blazed trails and built institutions; she inspired, taught and maintained traditions; she led by example and respected no boundaries for her curiosity and interests. She served her communities with dedication, perseverance, talent, love and energy. We begin this task of understanding her in the context of her scholarly fields and now as a figure of history. But we are each wise enough to know that through her work, wit and wisdom she remains very much a part of our present.
Watch the first part of a 2003 presentation by Dr. Dickinson on the African retentions in diasporic foodways, “From Goobers to Gumbo.”: