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Robert Gregory (1924-2014)

Robert Gregory, professor and scholar of East African history, dies at 90.

Robert Gregory, Professor Emeritus at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, died of natural causes at Crouse Hospital on Thursday night, surrounded by family members. He is noted for having established the Kenya National Archives at Syracuse University and for his authoritative research and writing on the role of South Asians in East Africa.

He and his two brothers, Walter and George, were raised in Southern California. As a young adult, he acquired a pet lion, which was not a favorite among the neighbors, but was an early indicator of Dr. Gregory’s adventurous spirit. Dr. Gregory attended Whittier College as an undergraduate, where he edited the school newspaper; at one time was asked to be interviewed by Richard Nixon, who attended the same college. Dr. Gregory was a licensed pilot and volunteered to serve in the army air corps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. His military career was cut short by a severe arthritis that left him unable to walk for the next two years.

Dr. Gregory pursued graduate studies in British Empire history at UCLA. He won a Fulbright Scholarship to England where he performed research leading to his PhD and established lasting friendships. He returned briefly to California, where he met and married Patricia Rio following a whirlwind romance. Despite the short courtship, their marriage was strong and lasting, and served as an inspiration to many.

Dr. Gregory took his young bride with him for another year overseas to England and East Africa, on a meager budget to continue his research. Upon their return, he received a faculty appointment at Wake Forest College in North Carolina. During his time there, his two children were born, Theresa and Robert. As a faculty member, he brought the first person of color to the college, a West African exchange student. In the deep South, this action was highly controversial, and a Ku Klux Clan cross was burned in front of his house.

Desiring a more liberal climate, Dr. Gregory accepted an appointment as an Assistant Professor of history at Syracuse University, where he spent the remainder of his career. While at SU, he obtained grants from the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and various private philanthropic organizations to begin what became a 30-year project gathering records and conducting hundreds of interviews in India and East Africa during the period of transition from British colonies to independent nations. This project also involved several more year-long sojourns to India and East Africa for Dr. Gregory and his family, and launched the careers of numerous graduate students who worked with him.

An important fruit of this effort was the creation of the Kenyan National Archives at Syracuse University’s Byrd Library. The collection included 3,000 reels of microfilm and became the world’s primary source of records on the transition from colonial rule in Kenya since many of the original records were later destroyed. Other results of this project included the seminal book by Dr. Gregory, entitled, India and East Africa: A History of Race Relations within the British Empire 1890-1939, published by Oxford University Press. He subsequently wrote separate books covering the political, economic, and philanthropic contributions of South Asians to East Africa’s development. In 2000, Dr. Gregory’s work was honored by the National Museums of Kenya through his being awarded the Asian African Heritage Metal.

Dr. Gregory, and his wife Patricia, were known in the Syracuse University community for large, convivial parties and for an open door to those who needed mentorship, support, or loving kindness. They had many close friends from all over the world. Dr. Gregory’s adventurous spirit continued into retirement, and included designing and building a country home and rekindling his love of flying. The last two years of his life were spent at Menorah Park, where he earned the affection and respect of the staff. He is survived by his two children; numerous grandchildren; and soon-to-be-born great-grandson.
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First published on the Syracuse University website.