Niara Sudarkasa, née Gloria Albertha Marshall, affectionately known as “Madam President,” and former director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, died May 31 after a long struggle with several chronic diseases.
Born Aug. 14, 1938, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as the sole daughter of Alexander Charlton and Rowena Marshall, Niara grew up with her three brothers, George Jr., Ralph and Reese. At age 14, she entered an early-admissions program at Fisk University, and in 1957 she transferred to Oberlin College where she received a double Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology and English.
She received her Master of Arts degree in anthropology from Columbia University in 1959. While earning her Ph.D. in Yoruba language and culture at Columbia, she became that university’s first African-American woman teacher. In 1964, she joined the faculty of New York University as an assistant professor of anthropology, again becoming the first African-American woman to hold that position.
In 1969, Niara became the first tenured African-American professor at U-M. It was during this time that she adopted Sudarkasa as her African surname, and Niara — derivative of the Swahili word Nia meaning “high purpose” — as her first name.
During a 17-year career at U-M, Sudarkasa became the first African-American female director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, through which she became a nationally and internationally noted pan-Africanist, focusing on the cultural ties among Africa, the Caribbean and black America.
Leading the first Black Action Movement campaign in 1970 to increase the number of African-American and African students at the university, Sudarkasa became a vocal activist for black students, finding her voice beyond academia.
In 1986, she was appointed the 11th and first female president of Lincoln University, the oldest historically black college in the United States. As president, Sudarkasa extended the university’s longstanding reputation as a leading institution for African-American and African youth. She retired from Lincoln University in 1998.
Among the 13 honorary degrees she received was an honorary doctorate from South Africa’s Fort Hare University alongside former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Sudarkasa returned to her hometown of Fort Lauderdale and served as the Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center. Her donation of writings and a significant portion of her African artwork helped found this institution.
She authored numerous publications, including “Where Women Work: Yoruba Traders in the Marketplace and in the Home” (1973), “The Strength of Our Mothers: African And African-American Women in Families” (1996) and “Exploring the African-American Experience” (1995).
Essence magazine named her “Educator for the 1990s,” and in 2001, the title of Chief Yeye Olukun-Igbadero was conferred on her by Alaiyeluwa Oba Okunade Sijuwade, the Ooni of Ife in the Kingdom of the Yoruba in Nigeria. She received more than 100 civic and professional awards. The most recent, “Local Literary Legend Award,” was presented June 1 by the Go On Girl national literary society.
In addition to her academic achievements, Sudarkasa was active in community and civic life, and was invited to become an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Always a doting mother, Sudarkasa was proud of her son, attorney and African economic development specialist Michael Sudarkasa, a U-M alumnus, and cherished her five grandchildren, Jasmine, Jonathan, Maya, Mari-Elle and Nigel.
— Submitted by the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies