In 1963, Skinner became the first African American professor to receive tenure at Columbia.
Elliot Percival Skinner, the Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, died in Washington on April 1, at the age of 82. He was the first African American to receive tenure at Columbia.
Born in Trinidad-Tobago, West Indies, Skinner became an American citizen and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia’s anthropology department in 1955 with a dissertation titled, Ethnic Interaction in a British Guiana Rural Community: A Study in Secondary Acculturation and Group Dynamics. His first regular appointment was at NYU where he was tenured in 1963, but he rejoined the Columbia department as a tenured Professor of Anthropology in 1966. Immediately, however, he took a three year leave of absence to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Upper Volta.
Skinner was named to the Boas Professorship in 1969 and in 1972-75 he served as the department chair. As a graduate student he held a Columbia Traveling Fellowship and he later won awards from Ford, SSRC, Guggenheim, and Woodrow Wilson, among others. He described his fields of interest as “African ethnology,” which included “peoples and cultures, comparative institutions, African political systems, African religions, urban development, modern political change, and changing institutions,” and also “race relations, the peoples of the West Indies, Africans in the New World, and the rise of planet-wide civilizations.” In awarding him their Distinguished Africanist Award in 1985, the African Studies Association said, “He has been an ardent and vigorous defender of the interests of both Africa as a region and African studies as a discipline. On the African continent, the field of African studies in America is as much identified with Elliot Skinner as with any other American scholar.”
In 1975, his African Urban Life: The Transformation of Ouagadougou (Princeton University Press) won the Melville J. Herskovitz Prize for the best book written on Africa. He was the editor, among other works, of the standard Peoples and Cultures of Africa: An Anthropological Reader (Natural History Press), and he was the author of numerous articles. One of his interests was in the relations of Christianity and Islam among African peoples, and he also addressed the “diffusion of Islam.” In 1983, he co-edited Transformation and Resiliency in Africa: As Seen by Afro-American Scholars (Howard University Press). Drawing on his diplomatic career, he published Beyond Constructive Engagement: United States Foreign Policy Toward Africa (Paragon House, 1986).
The entire Columbia University community mourns his passing and extends its condolences to his family.