The Influential Career of Dr. Gloria Harper Dickinson
by Tristan Weisenbach
Gloria Harper Dickinson recognized the importance of African American Studies from the moment she began researching within the field. She understood how African diaspora history and culture had been overlooked and deemed unimportant for countless years.
Dickinson, who taught at The College of New Jersey for over three decades and was the former Chair of the Department of African American Studies, dedicated her career towards sharing her expertise on African diaspora. In doing so, she incorporated new digital media and technology into the classroom while acting as a mentor who inspired countless students, friends, and colleagues to follow in her footsteps.
“She had a tremendous presence, she was very articulate and very smart,” said Dr. Bret Eynon, a former colleague of Dickinson. “She was a lot of fun and she loved to laugh.”
Eynon collaborated with Dickinson in the Visible Knowledge Project, a faculty research program that was designed to explore new ways of implementing digital media and technology into college classrooms. The project, which began in 2000 and lasted for multiple years, was co-directed by Eynon and Dr. Randy Bass.
“Gloria was a mainstay of that project,” said Bass, stressing the important roles that Dickinson and TCNJ had in the project.
Dickinson also created her own faculty development institute, titled Digitizing Divas. According to Bass, the goal of her project was to explore new ways of teaching and researching Africana women by incorporating new technology—something that, at the time, was very white and mainstream.
“This breaking of a certain boundary by using technology to enhance the teaching of Africana Studies was a significant contribution in her community,” said Bass.
Dickinson began her career at TCNJ, which was formerly known as Trenton State College, back in 1971 after earning her Ph.D. from Howard University. She later became an Assistant Professor of African American Studies (AAS) in 1978 before becoming the AAS Department Chairperson in 1980.
While teaching at The College of New Jersey, Dickinson shared her expertise through presentations and speeches across the greater-TCNJ community. She was a Luncheon Keynote Speaker for the National Hartford Association of Black Social Workers during its New England Regional Conference in Connecticut in 1985 and a Banquet Speaker at the Higher Ground Interdenominational Church during its Black History Month Observance in Trenton, NJ, in 1991.
Dickinson also frequently co-led seminars about new digital humanities resources with her colleague Donna Thompson Ray. These seminars took place at institutions all across the country, including Dillard University, Spelman College, Temple University, and The College of New Jersey.
Thompson Ray described Dickinson as a “forerunner in the field” who recognized the impact that these new digital resources would have on teaching Africana Studies.
“She was a fantastic mentor to hundreds of Black women scholars, including myself,” said Thompson Ray.
Dickinson was also a member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), where she was involved for many years before becoming the Association’s President from 2001-2004.
“She was a great person, and she is sorely missed,” said Dr. Sheila Flemming-Hunter, who was an ASALH board member at the time that Dickinson was serving as president. “Because of her, the organization is called ASALH.”
Flemming-Hunter, who became president after Dickinson from 2004-2006, also founded the Black Rose Foundation for Children (BRFC), a not-for-profit organization geared towards providing resources, services, and programs to help children succeed in all aspects of life.
She credits Dickinson for encouraging her, along with former Presidents John Fleming (2007-2009) and Daryl Michael Scott (2013-2015), to pursue a leadership role at ASALH.
“She gave us her rationale. She called us in and said, ‘this is the deal,’” said Flemming-Hunter.
Dickinson also brought current ASALH Executive Director Sylvia Cyrus to the organization. According to Cyrus, Dickinson brought her to the Association on an interim basis to execute the 2003 ASALH Conference. However, Cyrus has remained the Executive Director ever since.
Cyrus mentioned that Dickinson was also an active participant in the Martha’s Vineyard Branch of ASALH, an annual event designed to share knowledge about Africana history and culture.
“This was a very special place because so many Afro-Americans go there during the summer,” Cyrus said. “The ability for her to share her information there was something very special to her.”
Dickinson was an avid traveler as well. She recognized the importance of sharing her knowledge and expertise in her respective fields of study with other individuals who were interested in expanding their understanding.
Dickinson, alongside Donna Thompson Ray, attended a workshop in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, led by the Association of Caribbean Literature. Dickinson also visited the Caribbean, West Africa, South Africa, and Europe throughout her career, according to Thompson Ray.
One of Dickinson’s most notable excursions, however, was her participation in the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in 1995.
An article by Wolf Shipon from a September 1995 edition of “The Signal” highlighted some of Dickinson’s takeaways from the conference.
“One of Dickinson’s more important discoveries during the conference,” the article reads, “was the solidification of an academic idea she had been teaching for years—that some peoples of the South Pacific are indeed black people and part of the African diaspora.”
This was a central concept that Dickinson included as part of her teachings in a course titled “Africana Women in Historical Perspective.” According to a 1993 course syllabus, Dickinson stressed the importance of utilizing cross-cultural models to study African diaspora women and developed projects and assignments geared towards helping students understand the life experiences of Black women from various backgrounds.
Dickinson’s legacy of inclusion and innovation has left a long-lasting impact on many people that she met throughout her career as both an educator and a leader.
Her strong desire to share her expertise with the world and shed light on a field of study that had been undervalued for so long truly shows her genuine persona.
“She was an incredibly authentic person,” said Bass. “She would call it like it was.”