Audrey Smedley, one of the nation’s first African American women anthropologists, was born in Detroit in 1930, the eldest daughter of Ulysses and Mattie Smedley. While raising six children, her mother maintained a career as a beautician; her father owned and operated a gas station with his son, James, while working for Ford Motor Company for 33 years before retiring.
After completing her education in Detroit Public Schools, Audrey attended the University of Michigan on a scholarship. She intended to study law and dreamed of working for the United Nations. In 1954, Smedley earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in the history, letters, and law program and a Master of Arts in anthropology with a concentration in history in 1957 from the University of Michigan. From 1959 to 1961, she investigated the social and economic organization of the Birom ethnic group of Northern Nigeria to complete her dissertation in late 1966. As a single mother raising two boys, David and Brian, in England, Smedley graduated from Victoria University of Manchester with a Ph.D. in social anthropology in 1967.
Smedley is best known for her studies of the history of “race,” a concept that she argues emerged in the Americas to justify enslavement and genocide against Africans. She argued that folk culture popularized race while science gave it authority in her book Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview (1993).
Before accepting a Bunting (now Radcliffe) fellowship at Harvard University in the summer of 1971, she began teaching at Wayne State University in the 1960s and nearby Oakland University where she was tenured. She taught later at SUNY-Binghamton (now Binghamton University) where she was the second Black faculty hired on a regular faculty line. She completed the institution’s tenure process and retired in 1995 after 22 years of service. After retiring from Binghamton University, Smedley became a professor of anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University where she retired a second time in 2002.
Audrey Smedley was a co-founder of the Museum of Afro-American History in Detroit (now the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History). The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) honored Smedley as a fellow for her contributions to anthropology and the history of race and race relations. She also won the Delta Sigma Theta-Delta Award for Excellence in Afro-American History and Anthropology.
Smedley is survived by her younger brother Laconia and her two sons, Brian and David, who is a sculptor and former coordinator of the Sculpture Program at Howard University. She also has two grandchildren, Avery and David. She died at her home in Beltsville, Maryland, on October 14, 2020 at the age of 90.