Death is inevitable. It is a natural phenomenon which comes without notice. Like the rising and setting of the Sun, death is a certainty for all of us one day. But any time death comes knocking, especially when it snatches a loved one, it is as if it never happened before. The shock can only be imagined. And so it happened that we were confronted with the shocking news of the departure to the great beyond of Professor Jean Frances Herskovits Corry on February 5, 2019. Her demise was one of the greatest loss to Nigeria in particular and humanity in general.
She loved Nigeria so much that in the last half century there was virtually no important personality or issue that she was not aware of or had direct relationship with. This was why her beloved husband, Mr. John Corry, always jokes that “when I married Jean, I married Nigeria”. In fact, our former External Affairs minister, late General Joseph Garba, who later became President of the UN General Assembly once described Prof Jean Herskovits as a “well disguised Nigerian”.
Born on May 20, 1935, in Evanston, Illinois to Professor Melville Jean and Frances Shapiro Herskovits, Prof Jean received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Swarthmore College in 1956 and her PhD from Oxford University in 1960, writing her dissertation on freed slaves who returned to Africa and the Lagos colony. She was a research professor of history at the State University of New York at Purchase, specializing in African (particularly Nigerian) history and politics.
With her decades of experience and network across Nigeria, she wrote extensively and consulted for many institutions on Nigerian and African matters. She also testified at US Senate and Congressional committee hearings on Nigeria and US Africa policy. She was on the board of United Bank for Africa (UBA) from 1998-2005. She was a member of Conoco Philips’ Nigeria Advisory Council and was a founding Board of Trustees member of the TY Danjuma Foundation where she served on the programmes committee of the Board since its inception in 2009.
Prof Jean Herskovits’ last known public lecture here in Nigeria was at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) Lagos to mark the 10th Anniversary Memorial of her late friend Gen. Joseph Garba. She titled her paper “How to be a Nigerian” a title she borrowed from a book of the same title by Mr. Peter Enahoro. In the lecture she said “As a historian, and one privileged to have watched Nigeria closely since just before its independence, I will look briefly at Nigerianness over the years. To speak only about the present would be to do what Joe Garba deplored – ignoring history. As every student of history knows, however, you can use, or misuse, it to make whatever case you choose, we see too much of that now. But what I will do is put Nigeria’s experience into a larger historical and geographical context, and draw some implications for thinking about the Nigerian future that Joe Garba believed in and many here today share”.
Once she believes in the justness of a cause, Prof. Jean does not look back. She hated injustice; she abhorred discrimination under whatever guise. That was why she became involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, at one point the racist regime there declared her persona non grata. She also had deep connection to the kingdom of Lesotho and even travelled there at the peak of the anti-apartheid struggle defying the apartheid regime even though Lesotho is totally surrounded by South Africa.
Prof Jean Herskovits was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Historical Society. She was on the board of directors of the Near East Foundation. Under the auspices of the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation, she collaborated with the late Gen. Joseph Garba on a study of regional defence issues among southern African nations. She left her collection of documents and artifacts to the Schomburg Centre, a division of the New York Public Library. She developed special interest in the education of Nigeria’s impoverished girls and young women even setting up a trust fund to grant some deserving ones scholarship to enable them get education. She was indeed a true friend of Nigeria.
Dr Herskovits Corry was a genuine humanist who strived for the common good of all. She was a great scholar who taught thousands and mentored thousands more. She was a distinguished historian who saw a sense of history in every national, regional or global event. She was a loving wife to her beloved husband and a caring mother and grandmother whose maternal instinct was unequal. She was a patriotic American whose attachment to the great American ideals and her commitment to the American role in the world was well known, and well documented. Above all, she was a great friend of Nigeria and Africa who would go to any length in defence of what she believed was right and just.
She had great sense of humour. She was at home with the highest and the lowest. Her network cut across all known divides. She was at home in Lagos, Enugu, Kano, and Ibadan as she was in the remote villages around Wukari. She tried to build bridges of understanding and unite the people for the common good. With her kindness, compassion and good spirit she was the embodiment of the best of the human species if there ever was one.
To collect one’s thoughts to pay tribute to Prof Jean Herskovits is not easy. I knew her as a person and as a teacher, mentor, aunt and mother. Patriotism and integrity, honour and honesty, lofty ideals and nobility of intent were her guides and ordered her life from beginning to the end. She saw life steady and saw it whole. She was a true leader in her own right and a great human being whose vacuum can never be filled because there will never be any one like her. May I use this opportunity to express my personal condolences to her family, particularly John her wonderful husband and life partner. May her gentle soul rest in perfect peace. Amen. Adieu Professor Jean.
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