Obituary: Jean Herskovits, the ‘well-disguised Nigerian’

Dr. Jean Herskovits (1935-2019)
Dr. Jean Herskovits (1935-2019)

Dr. Jean Herskovits (1935-2019), who died on February 5, was widely recognized as a foremost expert on Nigeria who came to know and love the country and its people over five decades.

Her life’s passion was promoting education, especially for African girls.

As research professor of history at the State University of New York at Purchase, Herskovits taught and published in academic journals, as well as contributing to Foreign Affairs, the New York Times and AllAfrica.

She earned her BA from Swarthmore College and PhD from Oxford and held teaching posts during her career at Brown, Swarthmore and the City College of New York. She was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Historical Society. She frequently testified on Nigeria before Congressional committees and was consulted on a regular basis by senior U.S. diplomats working.

In Nigeria, she served at various times as a director of the United Bank for Africa and chair of the UBA Foundation and as an advisor to Citizens Energy Corporation and Conoco Phillips. She was a founding member of the board of the T.J. Danjuma Foundation.

“Jean was a unique and true friend of Nigeria,” the Foundation said in an obituary. “She will be deeply missed by fellow trustees and staff.”

Herskovits, who had visited every one of the 36 Nigerian states, had an nationwide network of friends and associates. Among them was President Muhammadu Buhari, with whom she met on most trips to the country, both before and after his election in 2015.

Her deep appreciation for Nigeria was accompanied by a desire to see it fulfil its vast potential. She argued that strong institutions were an essential prerequisite for Nigeria’s peace and prosperity. In a 2012 address to the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs, at an event honoring her close friend, Joseph Garba, a well-known Nigerian general and diplomat, Herskovits decried the lack of security across the vast country. “The country is more militarized than it was under military governments,” she said. “Fear and anger trump almost everything else.”

“I was regularly introduced by Joe Garba as ‘a well-disguised Nigerian’, the diminutive professor said in her address – “one of the nicest compliments I have ever been paid.”

Herskovits left her collection of documents and artifacts to the Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library, which also houses the papers of her parents, Melville J. and Frances S. Herskovits – both anthropologists.

She is survived by her husband, John Corry, a former New York Times reporter, as well as three daughters – Colette Corry Dahlberg, Janet Farnsworth and Fatima Nduka-Eze and six grandchildren – Luke, Nkem, Sam, Annie, Safian and Bilal.


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