The Life and Accomplishments of Dr. Stephen Chukumba
By: Talie Meza
Born in Mbaise, Nigeria in approximately 1933, the young Stephen Chukumba grew up in a large community. He lived in a compound with his parents and his siblings, as well as other families. Compounds typically consisted of a group of families, connected by a central hub, where everyone had their own houses. The region was referred to as Chokoneze. It was a blended community of Umu Choko (the people/children of Choko) and Umu Eze (the people/children of Eze), two towns that were alongside each other.
While he was still young, approximately six or seven years old, his mother passed away. Not long after, Dr. Chukumba’s father’s older brother passed away and Dr. Chukumba’s father married his wife. When his father remarried, it made his father the head of the household of the compound. With the rockiness of homelife, Dr. Chukumba went to serve a teacher, doing minimal tasks and keeping the compound well kept.
“And my dad was very happy to do it, like he’d speak very fondly of that time,” Stephen Chukumba Jr said in an interview.
“Even though I know it must have been traumatic to have lost his mother at such a young age and to see his father marry another woman. And then have children with that other woman and have that father and that woman and those kids being raised by a woman, whereas he and his siblings were kind of left to their own devices.”
Furthering his education was something Dr. Chukumba was dedicated to. He held himself to high standards and prided himself on not being punished very often, as he tended to follow rules and not stir up any trouble.
“He went to school, he studied, and got an education. That was his number one thing,” Bridget Chukumba, Dr. Chukumba’s late wife said.
Being Igbo was a source of pride for him. He had ways to comfortably navigate three major ethnic groups in Nigeria: Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo. He made connections with people from different walks of life and could connect further because he spoke their tongue.
After finishing secondary school, he gained admission to the University of Nigeria majoring in History. After gaining his degree, he began work for the diplomatic corps of Nigeria, the embassy of Nigeria. He began his diplomatic career in the passport office as chief passport officer at the office in Lagos. Dr. Chukumba worked to streamline the application process to give passports to anyone who was qualified. Because of his success in the office, he received a promotion and an offer to come to Washington DC to represent Nigeria. Before leaving Nigeria, Dr. Chukumba courted his future wife Bridget and they married in April 1967 and traveled to America in June of the same year.
While life as a diplomat and a diplomat’s wife had its perks in the beginning, when the Biafran war broke out back in Nigeria, Dr. Chukumba felt prejudice and tension from his own people and could not continue on as a diplomat to a country who discriminated against the Igbo people.
When he left his government position, Dr. Chukumba enrolled at Georgetown University and worked as a teacher at Gallaudet University.
“He was a perpetual student.” Mrs. Chukumba recalled.
Pooling the earnings from their respective jobs, the couple was able to afford a house in Northwest Washington and settled there from 1967 to 1972. But in 1972, Dr. Chukumba had been hired at The College of New Jersey to become a professor in the newly forming Black Studies Program, later renamed African American Studies.
“As a PHD in history, African studies, African American studies, he found that it was really vital for black people to know themselves. He thought that was one of the most important things that black people could have is an understanding of their history.” Stephen Chukumba Jr said.
Dr. Chukumba’s role as a professor in history served the student body well in helping to connect students with their own beginnings and how important it is to know themselves in a deeper way. His work in the department shined a light on the importance of African history to the student body and to the world at large.
“By teaching history and by starting the department, by giving these courses, by teaching students that look like him about themselves, he felt that that was the greatest service that he could offer to his Community. To the world with what he was doing with teaching.” Mr. Chukumba Jr said.
Alongside Don Evans and Gloria Dickinson, Dr. Stephen Chukumba worked to create a program that would give students the opportunity to engage closely with African American history and its various interlacing contexts throughout the American and African stories.