Roy S. Bryce-Laporte, black studies scholar, dies at 78

August 11, 2012

Roy S. Bryce-Laporte, 78, a sociologist and scholar of the African diaspora and black migration to and from the United States, died July 31 at the Copper Ridge assisted living facility in Sykesville, Md., where he had lived for the past two years. He had suffered several small strokes, said his brother, Herrington J. Bryce.

Dr. Bryce-Laporte was the founding director in 1973 of the Research Institute on Immigration and Ethnic Studies at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1969, he was the founding director of the African American Studies Department at Yale University at a time of burgeoning interest in African American studies and of heightened racial tension.

His students at Yale between 1969 and 1972 included Henry Louis Gates Jr., the well-known Harvard professor and director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, and Kurt Schmoke, the general counsel and vice president of Howard University and former mayor of Baltimore.

“He was a truly inspiring teacher,” Schmoke said in an interview. “He introduced us to a field of black literature and black authors we had known nothing about.”

After Yale, Dr. Bryce-Laporte came to the Smithsonian, initially with the first group of Woodrow Wilson International Scholars. He was a key figure in making the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall a celebration of the ethnic diversity of American culture, said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for History, Art and Culture.

Dr. Bryce-Laporte’s life story, as a black Panamanian immigrant to the United States, Kurin said, reflected the African diaspora that became the focus of his professional scholarship.

Roy Simon Bryce-Laporte was born Sept. 9, 1933, in Panama City. His ancestors had been taken as slaves from Africa to the West Indies, and from there moved to Panama looking for work during the construction of the Panama Canal early in the 20th century.

These experiences lent a “nuance, a feel, a texture” to Dr. Bryce-Laporte’s ethnic studies that helped showcase his own scholarship and encouraged other students of ethnic origins and migrations, Kurin said.

Dr. Bryce-Laporte attended racially segregated schools in Panama before coming to the United States in the 1950s. He graduated in 1960 from the University of Nebraska, where he received a master’s degree in sociology one year later. He received a doctorate in sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1968. He taught at Hunter College in New York before joining the Yale faculty.

In 1983, Dr. Bryce-Laporte relocated to New York, where he curated in 1986 the “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor: Voluntary Black Migration to the United States” exhibition at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The exhibition was part of New York’s Statue of Liberty Centennial Celebration.

In 1989, he became director of the Africana and Latin American Studies Program at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. Dr. Bryce-Laporte lectured widely throughout the country, including at Howard and Catholic universities in Washington, and he was the editor of many scholarly publications. After retiring from Colgate in 2000, he maintained a home in Upper Marlboro.

His marriage to Dorotea Lowe ended in divorce.

Survivors include his companion, Marian D. Holness of Atco, N.J.; three children, Camila Bryce-Laporte Morris of Silver Spring; Robertino Bryce-Laporte of New York City and Rene Bryce-Laporte of Washington; a brother; two sisters; and three grandchildren.

One of Dr. Bryce-Laporte’s signature courses was a comparison of life on a slave plantation to life in an asylum or prison. By his estimate, Dr. Bryce-Laporte told The Washington Post in 1986, 2 million black people voluntarily immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1980.

“An important part of black history in the United States is the fact that, aside from those who came through the slave trade, there are smaller groups who were and continue to be voluntary immigrants or refugees,” he told the Colgate Scene publication in 1999.

“I try to draw attention to their social situations, to look at this population which has suffered multiple levels of invisibility, as blacks, and as immigrants — their problems, their mobility, their contributions, and potential in shaping the future of American society.”