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Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Columbia resident and scholar of black suffragists, dies

Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, a retired Morgan State University historian who wrote of the African-American women’s suffrage movement, died Dec. 25 at her home in the Thunder Hill section of Oakland Mills in Columbia. She was 77.

Her daughter, Jeanna Penn, said no cause of death was determined.

Born Rosalyn Marian Terborg in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was the daughter of Jeanne Van Horn, an administrative assistant, and Jacques A. Terborg, a jazz guitarist from Suriname* on the coast of South America. He performed in the Tiny Bradshaw Band and was later a skycap at New York airports.

Her family settled in Queens and she was a 1959 graduate of John Adams High School.

“She was interested in biology and architecture as a high school student,” said her daughter, who lives in Oakland, Calif. “But her counselors talked her out of those choices. In the end, she was where she needed to be.”

In 1963 received a degree in history from Queens College, City University of New York.

In an interview with C-SPAN, she recalled her student days as a civil rights activist at the time of desegregation protests at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.

“In support of the students at Greensboro Agriculture and Technology, we started boycotting the Woolworth on Fifth Avenue in New York,” she said. “We would march in front of the building… [and] got the same kind of response in New York City as the people did in North Carolina. White America was not ready for this. We needed to stay in our place.”

She went on to receive a master's degree in U.S. diplomatic history from George Washington University and a doctorate from Howard University. She was active in the group, D.C. Students For Civil Rights.

While in Washington, she met William Thomas Penn, a University of the District of Columbia administrator. They married and settled in Columbia.

“Both my parents supported the foundation of Columbia and liked the ideals that the new city brought,” said her daughter.

In 1969 Dr. Terborg-Penn began teaching at Morgan State University, where she developed a history program and worked with Dr. Benjamin A. Quarles, who was one of her mentors. She was a past chair of the school’s Department of History and Geography and coordinated graduate history programs. She also taught courses at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and at Howard Community College in the 1970s.

“In the history of Morgan she ranked with Benjamin Quarles — he in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s and she in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s,” said Dr. Burney Hollis, recently retired dean of Morgan’s College of Liberal Arts and professor of English. “I understand from her students that she was one of the best teachers they encountered. She set a high standard and was very demanding — but she got the best out of them.”

She was a co-founder of the Association of Black Women Historians and was its first national director from 1979 to 1983.

She was the author of “African-American Woman: Struggles and Images;” “Women in Africa and the African Diaspora;” and “The Columbia Guide to African American History Since 1939.”

Another work, the 1998 “African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920,” won praise from reviewers. She wrote of black suffragists, including the Baltimore-born Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Dr. Terborg-Penn showed how black women — she wrote of more than 120 regional black female suffrage leaders — fought for the vote but were little acknowledged in white academic circles.

Her daughter said Dr. Terborg-Penn enjoyed her research.

“When she was in that mode she found it exhilarating,” Ms. Penn said. “She loved the hunt, whether it was to a library or an archive. This excited her. She felt she was uncovering voices that were being ignored. She liked giving validation to people.”

In a statement, Morgan University President Dr. David Wilson recalled her 37 years of “outstanding service on the faculty.” He called her a “noted scholar and leading authority on African-American history, and a pioneer in African-American women’s studies in America.”

Her sister-in-law, Carol Terborg, who lives in York, S.C., described her as a vivacious woman who had the soul of an artist.

“She loved colors and dressed well,” she said. “But in so many ways her home was a museum. It was a museum to all her ancestors — her ancestors from Suriname and from Holland. Ros was all about history and the memories of her people. She was also an excellent conversationalist who was a people person, first and foremost.”

Dr. Terborg-Penn was a founding member of a Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority chapter in Columbia. She was a seasoned traveler and enjoyed participating in academic panels.

Among her many honors was the Carter G. Woodson Scholars Medallion given by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Jan. 19 at the Calvin and Tina Tyler Ballroom of the University Student Center on the Morgan campus.

In addition to her daughter and sister-in-law, survivors include her brother, Jacques Terborg of York, S.C.; and a grandson. Her marriage to William Thomas Penn ended in divorce

This article has been updated. An earlier version of this story misstated the location of Suriname.
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