While March was a celebration of Women’s History Month, the month of April is recognized as Black Women’s History Month. We often recognize women like Rosa Parks and Ida B. Wells, who have left their mark in the world. However, many of us have not heard of the black women who helped to preserve our history and in so doing, have made history.
Two years into World War II, Rosalyn Terborg was born to Jeanne and Jacques Terborg in Brooklyn, New York. Later on, the family relocated to Queens where she eventually attended college. Her father, a successful Surinamese jazz musician who played with groups such as the Tiny Bradshaw Band, had a profound impact on her life. While she was at Queens College, she went along with him and her younger brother to the famous March on Washington in 1963.
While at Queens, Rosalyn was in a good company with fellow student activists. For example, she was a senior when Andrew Goodman was a freshman. Goodman became a member of the Congress of Racial Equality, CORE, who was murdered in 1964 by the KKK in Mississippi.
Terborg became a charter member of the campus chapter of the NAACP. In 1960, they protested segregation at the Woolworth’s restaurant on Fifth Avenue in New York in support of the student protests at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1961, she spearheaded a protest of the school’s decision to prevent Malcolm X from speaking there.
Recounting that day, Terborg said, “I’ll never forget. My speech teacher was going to have a test that day and I thought, ‘Oh well, I’ll fail this’. . . It turns out that for a class of 35 students, only three students showed up.”
In response to the shutting down of public schools following desegregation, Terborg and some of her classmates made trips to Virginia’s Prince Edward County to provide tutoring to black students unable to go to school. Before the efforts in Virginia, Terborg helped train her white classmates by involving them in a tutoring program at her family’s church. She said that was to prevent white activists from being “in culture shock” when far from home, and in a black community.
Despite her interest in her own family’s history and civil rights, Terborg had originally planned to become an architect. However, advisors at Queens dissuaded her from pursuing that career as unsuitable for a woman. She ended up studying history and dedicated her career to the field, but her experience as a college student kindled her passion for feminism.
Following the completion of her time at Queens College, Terborg spent the majority of her life Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area. She met William Penn, an administrator at the University of the District of Columbia while working at Friend’s House in D.C. The couple married in 1968, and later had a daughter, Jeanne. Their union, however, did not last, and in 1990 they divorced. Terbor-Penn obtained her master’s from George Washington University, and eventually her Ph.D. in U.S. History from Howard University in 1978. While she was in grad school, she was part of the D.C. Students for Civil Rights.
Terborg Literally Wrote the Book
Terborg-Penn’s fervor for social justice and interest in African American history continued to be evident throughout her career. She wrote several books focusing on black women. In 1978, she co-edited the first collection of its kind: The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images. She also helped to establish the Association of Black Women Historians along with fellow historians, Eleanor Smith and Elizabeth Parker. They were compelled to create this encouraging environment in response to racism among many white historians, and sexism among many black male historians.
Terborg-Penn was a admired professor and spent most of her career at Morgan State University. An outstanding leader, she had several notable positions during her time there, serving in the following roles: Coordinator of the African/Afro-American Studies Program, Morgan State University Oral History Projects Director, Project Director of the Ph.D.
History Program, and Campus Coordinator of the Cornell-Morgan Distance Learning Project.
Terbor-Penn died on Christmas Day at the age of 77 in 2018.