Martin Kilson

Professor of Government Martin Kilson Jr. in 1995.

Jane Reed/Harvard File Photo

Campus & Community

Martin Kilson, College’s first tenured African American professor, dies at 88

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Scholar of class and power in America supported founding of Afro-American Studies Department

Martin Kilson, a scholar of class, power, and the challenges facing African Americans, died April 24 of congestive heart failure at age 88.

Kilson, who in 1969 became the first African American to be named a full professor at Harvard College, taught at the College for nearly four decades, retiring in 1999 as the Frank G. Thompson Professor of Government Emeritus. He died in hospice care in Lincoln, Mass.

Early in his academic career, Kilson spent 18 months conducting research in Sierra Leone as that West African nation transitioned from British colonial rule to independence. The work resulted in the 1966 book “Political Change in a West African State: A Study of the Modernization Process in Sierra Leone,” and provided a foundation for Kilson’s work examining the interplay of power, political leadership, and race, both in Africa and in the African American community.

Influenced by the scholarship of W.E.B. Du Bois, Kilson studied the rights and interests of the black American underclass. The 1976 essay collection he co-edited, “The African Diaspora: Interpretive Essays,” was the first published work to use the term “African diaspora.” Kilson was influential in the development of African American studies as both a discipline and a department at Harvard. His 2014 book, “The Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1880–2012,” received the 2015 American Book Award.

Throughout his career, Kilson kept up a vigorous and forceful public commentary about the state of African American affairs. He is the author of several books and hundreds of articles, both in academic journals and in the popular press. In 2010, he delivered Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures.

Kilson was born on Feb. 14, 1931, in East Rutherford, N.J., to a family with a history of service in the ministry. Two of his pre–Civil War great-grandfathers were among the founders of the first African Methodist Episcopal church among free blacks in Maryland.

His family moved to Ambler, Pa., and Kilson attended Ambler High School, graduating in 1948. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, graduating as valedictorian in 1953 with a bachelor’s of science degree in political science.

Kilson studied at Harvard on a John Hay Whitney Fellowship, earning his Ph.D. in 1959 before leaving for his work in Sierra Leone. On his return, he became a research associate at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. He was appointed a lecturer in the Department of Government in 1962. He became faculty adviser for the newly formed Harvard-Radcliffe Afro-American Students Association, and in 1969 became a professor of government at Harvard College, the first African American to receive tenure there.

In 1975, Kilson received a Guggenheim Fellowship and, in 1988, was named the Frank G. Thompson Professor of Government, a title he held until his retirement in 1999.