Famed Afro-American Studies Scholar Dies

Richard A. Newman, one of Harvard’s most famous scholars of African-American studies, died Monday of brain cancer. He was 73.

Newman was a research officer at Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Studies from 1992 until his retirement last month. DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. praised Newman’s vast knowledge of black history in a speech at Newman’s retirement party entitled “One Hundred Amazing Acts...about Richard Newman; or, The Incognegro.”

Gates called Newman “sort of an ‘Ask Mr. Wizard’ for black history, a pen-and-ink Google for blackness, long before Google was conceived.”

He was the obvious choice for head of research for the Institute, Gates said.

“There was only one candidate, of course, for our fantasy position, and that was Richard Newman,” he said.

Newman, who was white, was born and raised in upstate New York and educated at an all-white college in Tennessee, Newman became a Presbyterian minister in Syracuse, N.Y. That was where he met Martin Luther King Jr., and shortly afterward decided to devote his life to working for liberty and equality for black people.

He taught at Boston University and wrote books and essays, edited the work of other scholars in the field and served as director of publications in the New York City Public Library. It was at the library in the early 1980s where he met and lent support to Gates in a research project regarding black women’s writings in the 1800s.

When he came to Harvard, Newman took on many roles.

“Dick then became the director of our Fellows Program, director of research and all around jack-of-all-trades,” Gates said. “Searching for a suitable title to describe what he does for the Institute, I urged the [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] administration to name him Harvard’s chief Negro-ologist, because that’s what he is to me. They refused, but they were wrong. If you don’t believe me, ask Dick a question about black history and you’ll see what I mean.”

Gates said Newman was “instrumental” in the editing of the web-based Africana encyclopedia. He helped choose the contributors, decide its breadth of research and even wrote many articles himself, Gates said.

Professor of History and African and African American Studies Evelyn B. Higginbotham recalled that Newman’s knowledge of the issues related to the field they shared was encyclopedic itself.

“It wasn’t just that he knew a lot, he knew a lot about things that most of us would go to rare books and manuscripts to find,” she said. “He was a person who bought rare books and who read more broadly than anyone I know of.”

He often helped other scholars with their own work in the field, according to Higginbotham.

“It was amazing to see how many people talk about how he was critical to their research agendas, how he opened their minds to people and networks of organizations,” she said.

Gates said the death of Newman, whom he has called “the blackest scholar I know,” a significant loss to the field of African-American studies.

“We will miss him terribly and he’s irreplaceable,” Gates said. “He’s one of a kind and they don’t make them anymore.”

A memorial service will be held today at Harvard’s Memorial Church at 11:00 a.m.

—Staff writer Laura L. Krug can be reached at krug@fas.harvard.edu.