Local Obituaries

Professor who opened University of Miami to black literature, Nancy Clasby, dies at 78

Nancy Clasby developed, advocated and promoted the first Black Studies program and taught the first Black Literature courses at the University of Miami.
Nancy Clasby developed, advocated and promoted the first Black Studies program and taught the first Black Literature courses at the University of Miami.

Nancy Clasby’s daughter Alison Harke remembers the local leaders in the civil rights movement who gathered in her house in predominantly white Coral Gables in the 1960s. People like Roxcy Bolton, Bennett Brummer, Sandy D’Alemberte, Bob and Arva Parks.

Today, as local historian Arva Moore Parks reflects on the loss of her friend — Clasby died in her sleep on Nov. 4 at age 78 — she thinks back to the era when the courts ordered pairings of several area schools to integrate them. A group of locals helped ease the potential discord. The grade schools were Carver, Coral Gables and Sunset. Parks, along with Clasby and her husband, Eugene, met at the First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables with the other activists to bring children and their parents from the black and white communities together. The goal was to get families to know one another.

“It worked,” Parks said. “If we could let parents meet each other and children meet each other, people would calm down. People like Nancy and Gene became [my] friends. They were warm and nice people who cared.”

Clasby, born in Covington, Kentucky, on Sept. 21, 1938, earned her doctorate in American Literature from the University of Wisconsin, where she met a fellow student, Gene, who would become her future husband. After moving to South Florida in 1968, the couple would go on to become University of Miami professors.

As an assistant professor at the University of Miami in the 1960s, Nancy Clasby developed the first Black Studies program and taught the first Black Literature course at UM.

Some called her a renaissance woman.

Eugene Clasby, about wife Nancy Clasby

“She tirelessly inspired thousands of students during her decades at UM,” Pamela Hammons, professor and chair of the English Department, said in a College of Arts and Sciences newsletter. “Across the years, Nancy’s students have always given her the highest of praise for her vast knowledge, her infectious love of her subject matter, and especially her unfailing kindness, helpfulness and understanding.”

Clasby spent 54 years as a teacher through her 2014 retirement. But during those years she also became an author, writing two books on myth, literature and Scripture. She developed a side career in real estate but returned to UM and taught a Bible as Literature course and researched the civil rights movement in Miami during the late 1960s and ’70s.

“Nancy had a fierce intellect that propelled her relationship with the divine, which was evident in everything she did, especially her lifelong passion for social and civil justice,” said son-in-law Lance Harke. “Her daughters were raised not with country club soirees but with service at soup kitchens, solidarity marches for migrant workers, and evenings at her home with local activists, educators and community organizers. She was well ahead of her time, and still is.”

Said daughter Alison Harke: “Lance is right, our life in some ways was so different than others growing up on Alhambra Circle. My mom had such a huge impact not only on life in Coral Gables and Miami in general but in the lives of my sister, Sarah, and me. We were raised with a strong sense of how fortunate we were to have a roof over our head and food on the table. We spent many weekends downtown feeding the poor, attending protest marches and living on the periphery of the fight for racial equality and social justice going on at various gatherings at our house. We would not be the women we are today without her unwavering love and guidance. We owe her everything.”

We were like the leaders of the pack and we cared about civil rights and equal rights and we wanted to make it work.

Historian Arva Moore Parks on Nancy and Eugene Clasby and fellow Gables activists in the 1960s

Husband Eugene Clasby believes his wife’s passion to fight for others, to educate, and to promote diversity came from her spiritual grounding in Catholicism.

“She was a very spiritual person,” he said. “Her latest book was ‘God, the Bible and Human Consciousness.’ It’s a scholarly book, but at the end Nancy speaks of some beautiful things that expresses her spirituality deeply.”

That final paragraph of Clasby’s second and last book in 2008 concluded:

In our dreams, we sometimes see our lost mothers and fathers again, but only imperfectly and in passing. God’s memory is the anti-type, the perfection, of our own clouded hold on time. It spans past and present, holding everything in the brilliant light of his knowing. Nothing is lost. Washed clean by the light, mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

Clasby is survived by her husband, Eugene, daughters Alison Harke and Sarah Clasby Engel, brothers Tom and Dan and six grandchildren. Services were held. Donations in her memory can be made to the UM College of Arts and Sciences.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen