Martin Kilson, first Black tenured professor at Harvard, dies at 88

A mentor to colleague Cornel West, he opened up the study of Blacks within the political science sphere at the school and creating a dialogue for African and African American studies

Harvard Professor Emeritus Martin Kilson (Credit: Harvard University, Courtesy Marion Kilson)

Professor Emeritus Martin L. Kilson, Jr., the first African American to receive full tenure at Harvard University has passed away at the age of 88.

According to The Harvard Crimson,  Kilson died April 24 in hospice of congestive heart failure.

Kilson was not only a highly respected scholar of African politics, hey also played a key roll in advancing the development of African American studies as an academic discipline and a department at Harvard.

READ MORE: Black woman says Harvard unfairly used her slave ancestor’s photos for nearly 170 years

“His legacy consists of thinking openly and honestly about African matters, African American matters, and telling the truth like it is,” said colleague Robert I. Rotberg, who has known Kilson since the 1960s when they both worked at Harvard, and co-edited an essay collection with him in 1976.

Kilson earned his doctorate in political science from the university in 1959, after graduating as valedictorian from Lincoln University in 1953. Less than two weeks prior to his death, Lincoln University announced that it would award Kilson with an honorary degree at its 2019 commencement ceremony.

Kilson first gained public attention after publishing his first book, “Political Change in a West African State: Study of the Modernization Process in Sierra Leone,” in 1966. This was followed by second book on African politics, “New States in the Modern World” in 1975.

“His publications are important even today, especially his writings on Sierra Leone and Ghana,” Rotberg said.

READ MORE: Cornel West returns to Harvard to teach African American studies for first time since 2000

Among his most notable mentees is public intellectual and Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy Cornel R. West.

“He exposed me to an international dialogue about justice, about power, about structures and institutions,” West said in a 2017 video created by Brainwaves Video Anthology. “That relationship, which began when I was 17 years old in 1970, remains strong to this day…He is still my teacher, and I have been so blessed to have him in my life.”

After he retired in 1999, an undergraduate research award was created in his honor, which continues to be awarded to students interested in African or African American studies

Kilson is survived by his wife, his three children — Jennifer K. Page, Peter D. de B. Kilson, and Hannah Kilson — and his six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.