Remembering Robert Rhodes, Professor Emeritus of African American Studies

Robert N. Rhodes, Professor Emeritus of African American Studies, passed away December 2015. He began his career as an activist and concluded it at Ohio University, where he inspired generations of students.
Dr. Robert Starks
January 6, 2016
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Rhodes was among the very early proponents of African American studies.

Before coming to Ohio University, Rhodes led the Black Studies program at Antioch College, where the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Education wielded the 1964 Civil Rights Law to threaten Antioch with the loss of federal funding over development of the Afro-American Studies Institute, citing discrimination against white students, writes Stephen C. Ferguson II in the book Philosophy of African American Studies: Nothing Left of Blackness.

“Black Leftist activists were significant players during the early period of Black Studies,” writes Ferguson. He includes Rhodes among the significant players during this time, noting that Rhodes taught African American Studies courses at the Antioch College branch campus in Washington, D.C. Ferguson also cites Rhodes’ analysis of the African American National Conference on Africa, an article titled “Internationalism and Social Consequences in the Black Community” in Freedomways 12 (1972), a leading African American journal published from 1961-85.

Martha Biondi writes in her book The Black Revolution on Campus that Rhodes led study groups the University of Chicago in 1968, at a time of an emerging black liberation movement, and taught briefly in “Communiversity,” where he was a popular teacher of weekend courses on political economy.

My friend and fellow teacher, Robert N. “BobRhodes, was many things, a friend, a Jazz officianato, and teacher possessing a prolific intellect.

Last December while attending a jazz concert where he succumbed to a heart attack in the washroom. Anyone who knew him knows that he died doing something he loved very much.

Born on June 6, 1932, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He earned an M.A. at the University of Cincinnati and an M.S. at Atlanta University. He worked as an Associate Professor and Chair of the African American Studies Program at Ohio University from the early 1980s to the 90s and he retired as Professor Emeritus in 1991. After retiring from Ohio University, he returned to Chicago and continued his teaching and lecturing. He rejoined the Communiversity as teacher and lecturer when it was revived by Dr. Harold Pates and Dr. Anderson Thompson in 2012.

He came to Chicago in 1966 after working as an economic analysist in the federal government, and teaching Black Studies at Antioch College branch campus in Washington, D.C. where he led the fight for a Black Studies program. He enrolled in the Ph.D. program in economics at the University of Chicago where he baffled his professors with observations and nuances that they had not thought of and often disputed.

After classes at the U. of C., he conducted informal lectures with eager students from around the city in his apartment and in the cafeterias on campus. Hundreds of us benefited greatly from his wide ranging knowledge of economics, Black History, and politics. He freely shared his vast knowledge of Marxism, left politics, globalism, and Black History. Indeed, many of us were first introduced to Marxist thought while attending Bob Rhodes’ lectures and teaching sessions.

In 1967 at the height of the Black student rebellion and fight for Black Studies on college campuses, Attorney Stan Willis who was then a student at Crane College with Henry English, President of the Black United Fund of Illinois, and other activists won the fight to change the name of the college to Malcolm X. Stan Willis, Earl Jones and I were students at Loyola University, we worked for a month to organize the largest Black student conference ever. The conference was held at Rev. John Porter’s church at 64 and Sangamon. Students came from colleges and universities all over the Midwest. It was at that conference that Dr. Harold Pates and Dr. Anderson Thompson, along with psychologist Bobby Wright, decided to organize the Communiversity which met each Saturday at the Center for Inner City Studies, Northeastern Illinois University.

Bob Rhodes joined this effort and became an integral partner on the teaching staff. In their tribute to Bob at the memorial program on December 18th at the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies Drs. Pates and Thompson said “We recognize his contribution to the founding and the culture of the original Commuiniversity. From the Communiversity’s inception, Bob participated every Saturday as a lecturer during the period from the 1970s through the early 1980s. Bob’s scholarship and resourcefulness attracted many of the politically activist students of the 1970s-80s to his Communiversity classes.

From its origins the Communiversity reflected four streams of social thought: there was the African and African American Cultural Nationalist, the African Researcher, the African Centered/or Black Psychologist, and the Marxist Socialist.

Bob was central in his authority on Marxist Socialism along with other African American thinkers, who had attempted to fit the Marxist paradigm to African/African American reality. Bob was influential in his advocacy.

Professor Rhodes was latitudinarian in both his intellectual and social interests; He enjoyed extemporaneous partying and would frequently announce the venue for the next party after his lectures. He had also a compelling interest in jazz music to which he frequently attached a political analysis.

Professor Rhodes was generous with his time and with his research resourcefulness. As a layman intellectual, he supplied his students with substantial reference authority. Until his transition into eternity, he was exemplary as an elder who taught availability as an essential teaching value.

Professor Rhodes’ contribution to the African American community qualifies him to join the eternal processional of our most relevant living ancestors, as he himself was a provocative intellectual teacher and tool for serious research and social analysis.”

Dr. John Higginson, Professor of History at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who was a one of the original lecturer at the Communiversity, sent this tribute: “Bob was many things to many people; but he was, first and foremost, a quintessential teacher, raconteur and quartermaster of the social movement. He had an uncanny ability—perhaps a consequence of his years as an accountant and economist for the United States Department of Defense—to demonstrate how the arcane mysteries of the workings of the capitalist economy were, in fact, not mysteries at all. By means of myriad practical examples at his weekly Friday afternoon seminar, Bob brilliantly demonstrated how the social form of commercial and industrial production was continuously at odds with the means of production and those who owned the latter—even in the apparently placid and conservative times of the Eisenhower era. Bob was one of the sparks of the ‘fire next time’.”

Dr. John Bracey, also a History professor at U. Mass. at Amherst sent the following tribute: “When you dedicate your life to making our world more civilized, humane and just, you come to realize that there are people with unshakeable integrity and principles, just not enough. Bob Rhodes was one of those who never tacked to the winds, or chased after the latest intellectual or political fad or fashion.

When I first met Bob over four decades ago he had come to the understanding that the best tools for understanding our society and building a new one could be found in the writings and actions of Marx and Engels, Lenin, the great Soviet thinkers that helped make the 1917 Revolution and those throughout the world who shared that understanding. Bob had no time for fools, sloppy thinkers or intellectual gadflies. By all accounts he was a demanding, but fair teacher, and a skilled debater who spotted the contradictions in an argument like a hawk.”

Dr. Greg Carr, 1987 grad of Ohio University and Professor of African American Studies at Howard University, posted the following tribute: “Professor Bob Rhodes was a towering intellectual and a master teacher. His genius combined a prodigious memory and voracious appetite for knowledge with an uncanny ability to identify the heart of an issue and articulate it with piercing clarity.”

Further tributes were given by Dr. Conrad Worrill, Dr. Alice Palmer and her husband Edward “Buzz” Palmer, Mr. Henry English, President of the Black United Fund of Illinois, and Ph.D. student Edward Byrd who was mentored by Bob Rhodes.

Bob Rhodes is a legendary self-proclaimed (accurately) ‘idea man’ who prefers the background to the limelight. He is one of the most brilliant still-living true black leftists who has yet maintained strong ties with the black nationalist community,” writes Ball. I had a chance to capture this portion of a conversation we had in the office of Dr. Conrad Worrill at the Jacob Carruthers Institute for Inner City Studies, Northeastern University of Illinois in Chicago Feb. 21, 2015, as we set to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination.”

My personal tribute is short and concise, “Bob Rhodes was a giant of an intellectual, a great teacher, jazz historian and my friend!”

January 10, 2016