Marie Davis Gadsden, 92, dies; chaired Oxfam America


Marie Gadsden, Jonetta Barras and Rufus N. Ragin III attend a reception at Market 5 Gallery in Washington in 1981. Gadsden, a leader in education and philanthropic foundations, died March 14 in Washington. She was 92. (Fred Sweets/THE WASHINGTON POST)
March 28, 2012

Marie Davis Gadsden, a top administrator of education and philanthropic foundations who became the first black woman to chair the board of the relief group Oxfam America, died March 14 in Washington. She was 92.

She died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at the Carroll Manor nursing home, said her niece Laura Vault.

Dr. Gadsden, the daughter of a physician and a teacher, grew up in segregated Georgia and won scholarships to finance her college and postgraduate education on her way to a doctorate in English from the University of Wisconsin in 1954.

Her academic speciality was language and how to teach it. She was an associate professor at American University when the U.S. Information Agency sent her in 1959 to the West African country of Guinea to train teachers. Ahmed Sekou Toure, the Marxist revolutionary turned absolute ruler of Guinea, shut down the operation in 1961 as part of his anti-Western policies.

Dr. Gadsden subsequently taught English as a foreign language with the Peace Corps. She directed regional training centers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, served as training coordinator for the African region and, in 1970, was appointed country director in the West African country of Togo.

From 1972 to 1984, she was a vice president of the Phelps Stokes Fund, a foundation that helps low-income students complete their education. Working from Washington, she coordinated programs to educate black refugees from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and a few other countries in the final throes of rule by repressive, minority-white governments.

“The rationale for the refugee student program is sensible,” she told an audience at the University of Wisconsin in 1978. “On the crest of independence in west and east Africa, the major dilemma was that the new governments had not been prepared for nation building. No adequate cadre of trained middle-level manpower was standing ready to assume the duties attendant to independence.”

Dr. Gadsden led ethnic heritage seminars in West Africa that included representatives from dozens of historically black U.S. colleges and universities. In addition, she directed a Caribbean scholars’ exchange program.

Until she retired in the late 1980s, Dr. Gadsden continued doing similar work as deputy director of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

In the 1980s, she also served on the board of Oxfam America, part of the 15-member confederation headed by Oxfam International in Britain. Oxfam partners with indigenous nongovernmental organizations to finance agricultural and other development projects.

Joe Short, who served as Oxfam America’s executive director from 1977 to 1984, recruited Dr. Gadsden to the board. He said Dr. Gadsden was a “gracious, delightful and forceful woman” and “a critically important person in our overall expansion” in Africa and Central America.

Oxfam America, started in 1970, lacked a high profile among Washington policymakers, he said.

“Marie was an ideal board member because of her understanding of education, she knew the policy circuits in Washington and was knowledgeable about Africa and Latin America,” said Short, now an adjunct professor of international development studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. “She was one of those who enabled me to navigate the policy circuits in Washington and lend credibility to our organization.”

Marie Agnes Davis was born April 27, 1919, in Douglas, in south-central Georgia. She said her family left town after her father, a physician, was threatened by a lynch mob. They settled in Savannah, on the Georgia coast.

In 1938, she graduated with a degree in biological sciences from what is now Savannah State University, and in 1945, she received a master’s degree in English language and communication from what is now Clark Atlanta University.

While studying at the University of Wisconsin, she served on the governor’s human rights panel. In the late 1960s, she was credited with helping start an Afro-American studies program at the university. After graduation from Wisconsin, she received a Fulbright scholarship to study at St. Anne’s College at the University of Oxford in England.

Her husband of 39 years, Robert W. Gadsden Jr., a Defense Department cartographer, died in 1993. Dr. Gadsden, a longtime District resident, had no immediate survivors.

In an interview for the reference guide Notable Black American Women, she said she was captivated by an idealistic axiom: “Though people lived thousands of miles apart, they all share something in common, man’s humanity.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”