Gloria Harper Dickinson, 61, head of African American studies at the College of New Jersey, president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and international regional director of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, died of breast cancer last Sunday at home in Willingboro.
The only child of a merchant marine and a nurse, Dr. Dickinson was raised in Queens, N.Y., and graduated from Hunter High School in New York. She earned a bachelor's degree in European history from City College of New York in 1968, and a master's in 1970 and a doctorate in 1978, both in African American studies, from Howard University.
An expert in African diaspora, Dr. Dickinson was named in 1978 a professor of African American studies at Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey in Ewing, where she taught until she became ill in the fall.
Dr. Dickinson brought history to her classroom. She assigned her students to do oral histories on several of her sorority sisters who graduated before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 - one of whom was 96. She arranged a video conference with the Harvard Law School's Charles Ogletree to speak on justice and race.
In 1970, she married Arthur Dickinson, who fought with the Air National Guard in Operation Desert Storm and works at Millersville University.
Dr. Dickinson was an early proponent of media technology in African studies. "Gloria introduced a computer in her classroom in 1988," her husband said. At the time of her death, she was Webmaster for the Association of Black Women Historians.
"I've always tried to connect with communities of people from African heritage," Dr. Dickinson said before leaving for a trip to France in 2001 to lecture at the U.S. Embassy in Paris and the U.S. Consulate in Strasbourg.
In 1995, Dr. Dickinson was among representatives from every continent at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. She spoke on African women's topics, including equal rights, wages, domestic and political violence, and female circumcision. Dr. Dickinson traveled to Oman for Black History Month in 2003.
Kim Pearson, a professor of English at the College of New Jersey, said: "Gloria was a connoisseur of culture. She had the Rolodex from God. She traveled the world and connected people with people."
For example, Dr. Dickinson helped former Ralph Lauren model MacDella Cooper - who had fled civil war in Liberia in 1989 - connect with her mother in the United States and graduate from the College of New Jersey. Also with Dr. Dickinson's help, Cooper started a foundation in 2003 for orphans in Liberia.
Dr. Dickinson carefully planned weeklong trips with friends to places such as Sapelo, one of the rustic Gullah islands off Georgia, where more than 100 descendants of slaves live. Trips often concluded at the venerable Dooky Chase soul-food restaurant in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.
Dr. Dickinson fit comfortably among the women in The Links Inc., a group that has raised millions of dollars for global African American causes since it was founded in Philadelphia in 1946. "Philadelphia has a longer tradition of women of color being educated than other places," she said on The Links' 60th anniversary.
"Gloria taught that to whom much is given, much is expected," Pearson said. "She was an ambassador for the race, but not a racial chauvinist. She did not love black people to the exclusion of others."
Dr. Dickinson dressed elegantly, with elaborate hairdos. "She wore a T-shirt from a discount store, a ceremonial robe from China, and junk jewelry that looked real – all with an air of royalty," Pearson said.
"She did not enter a room; she made an entrance - no matter if there were celebrities at Martha's Vineyard, ambassadors in D.C., or churchgoers in Vineland. Gloria had a deliberate way of speaking. She sounded like a queen but was capable of telling bawdy jokes. Her goal was always to hook people up to get something done."
Dr. Dickinson delighted in putting together meals of collard greens, sushi, champagne and fried chicken - with painstaking attention to ambiance. She led shopping trips in Africa, Europe, and every town she visited in the United States - and she told friends what to buy.
In 2007, between her trips to South Africa and Martha's Vineyard, doctors diagnosed inflammatory breast cancer, one of the rarest and most aggressive forms of the disease. Trying to figure out "why me?" Dr. Dickinson said in a 2007 Inquirer article: "The one thing I know I am supposed to do is get the information out" about this kind of cancer.
Characteristically, she turned to faith-based groups, including Sister Will You Help Me, which supports women of color with breast cancer in Camden. Dr. Dickinson, whom friends called "the woman who invented networking," was so inspired she started a chapter in Willingboro. She also supported cancer-survivor groups such as Bread of Life.
In addition to her husband, Dr. Dickinson is survived by a nephew, three cousins, and a grandniece.
Friends may call at 5 p.m. today at Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church, 204 Sunset Rd., Burlington Township, where a service will begin at 7. Friends also may call after 9 a.m. tomorrow at the church, where the funeral will be held at 11. Burial will be in Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery, Arneytown. A repast will follow at Alpha Baptist Church, 15 Rose St., Willingboro.
Memorial donations may be made to the Alpha Kappa Alpha Educational Advancement Foundation, 5656 S. Stony Island Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60637.