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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Gladys-Marie Fry (1931-2015)

Saturday, November 7, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate

By Marilyn M. White (Kean University) — 

Gladys-Marie Fry was born in 1931 in Washington, D.C.  She received her undergraduate education from Howard University, where her father was Dean of the Architecture Department. She received her Ph.D. in Folklore from Indiana University and taught for thirty years in the English Department at the University of Maryland, retiring as Professor Emerita.

Her dedication to the field of folklore included decades-long membership in the American Folklore Society and faithful attendance at our annual meetings.  This dedication was recognized by the membership when she was elected to the Executive Board of AFS, serving from 1992 through 1994.  Her many achievements in folklore scholarship were recognized by the Folklore Fellows when she was elected as a Fellow.

Her seminal work was 1975’s Night Riders in Black Folk History, based on her dissertation.  The book used slave narratives and oral histories to explore more than a century of White control of African Americans through supernatural means.  As the narratives related, extending from antebellum patterollers (patrollers) through the Ku Klux Klan, these “night riders” or “night doctors” attempted to instill fear in African Americans and especially limit their movements after dark.  Importantly, Gladys-Marie’s book showed how systemic racism was used against African Americans—and how it was understood by them.

Delving into her own family’s history led her to becoming a leading scholar of African American textiles, producing her second major publication, Stitched from the Soul:  Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South, 1989, as well as organizing and curating many exhibits, writing numerous museum catalogs and articles, and earning a well-deserved reputation, especially in the African American quilt community.  Marsha MacDowell shared the following:  "Dr. Gladys-Marie Fry left massive amounts of research files that the family, at the encouragement of NEA National Heritage Fellow Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, is donating to Michigan State University Museum. There the papers, rich in investigations of African American cultural heritage and particularly her unique study of slave-made quilts, will join the African American quilt-related research collections of Dr. Mazloomi, Kyra Hicks, Cuesta Benberry, and Marsha MacDowell.  Together these collections will serve as foundational materials for researchers for years to come."

For me, Gladys-Marie had two major impacts on my professional and personal life.  In the mid-1970s, along with Gerald L. Davis, John Roberts, and others, Gladys-Marie co-founded what would become the Association of African and African American Folklorists (4-AF).  During the early years we met entirely separately from AFS—including at the University of Maryland, where Gladys-Marie, who was on the faculty, was our host.  We have subsequently met during AFS, sponsoring panels and having our annual dinner at African Diaspora restaurants, and, over the years, Gladys-Marie always came and, significantly, provided historical continuity and wise counsel.  This was very important to me, as I’ve been the President of 4-AF for many years.

Secondly, in 1984, I participated in an NEH Summer Seminar on African American Folklore at Yale University, taught by John Szwed.  I was surprised to see that Gladys-Marie was a fellow participant, when, based on her own expertise, she very well could have led it!  She was such a wonderful role model, providing us—her fellow students—with her deep knowledge and insight in the classroom, as well hanging out with us during free time.  When several of us did a daytrip to New York City, Gladys-Marie was part of the group, and I was lucky to have her all to myself, as it were, when we went on an excursion to Mystic Seaport, sightseeing, talking about folklore, and sharing our own and our family stories with each other.  Her participation in the Seminar was a wonderful illustration of the fact that she didn’t rest on her laurels!  Not only was it important to keep learning, but if that took going back to school, so be it.

In preparing this, I reached out to several folklorists to share their thoughts about Gladys-Marie.  Phyllis May-Machunda wrote, “Please share that Gladys was better recognized outside AFS for her stellar scholarship than within.  She was extremely well-known in the African American quilters’ circles.  She also was [a] truly generous mentor who nurtured and encouraged younger African American folklorists to succeed in academia.   I will always be grateful for that.”  Pat Turner wrote that Gladys-Marie “was probably the most profoundly influential African American folklorist for me.  She wrote about legends in Night Riders, and I wrote about legends.  I informally interned with her at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival with Alabama quilters, and I wrote a book about quilters.  So blessed.”  Jo Radner wrote, “I loved her and her work.  Stitched from the Soul was an eye-opener for my students at American University, both for its astonishing images and artistry and for the incredibly patient detective work that went into it.”  Diana Baird N’Diaye wrote, “Dr. Gladys Marie Fry not only documented, taught, wrote forcefully about African American textile arts traditions, she was an impeccable dresser, and many within the African American artists’ community benefited from her patronage. Her manuscript on the clothing arts of enslaved African descendants remains to be published.”  I’m sure that all of us would like to see that change!

Gladys-Marie Fry joined the ancestors on November 7, 2015, and, although another of our tall trees has fallen, she has left us a legacy of scholarship, service to her students and to the field of folklore, and friendship that so many of us continue to cherish.  “What is remembered, lives.”

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