Deaths: James Searing, ‘tireless advocate’ for students

James Searing

James Searing “will be missed greatly.”
Photo: UIC Photo Services

James Searing, a longtime professor and scholar of African history who was known as an advocate for students, died unexpectedly early this month at his home in Oak Park. He was 59.

He joined UIC in 1992 and served as history department chairperson from 2005 to 2010.

“Jim will be missed greatly for his sense of humor, his deep intellect and his commitment to the department and the university,” said Laura Hostetler, professor and chair of history.

“He was extremely knowledgeable, but always kept a sense of perspective.”

His research focused on the history of Senegal, particularly the people and cultures involved with the West African republic’s past encounters with Islam, the Atlantic world and French colonial rule.

“Jim cared passionately about the department and the world of scholarship. He took us seriously. It is a standard worthy of emulation,” said Leon Fink, distinguished professor of history.

During his career, Searing was awarded three Fulbright grants to study or teach in Senegal, where he updated an exhibit on the history of slavery and the slave trade at the Historical Museum on Goree Island.

His latest research involved fieldwork that explored ethnicity and conversion of the Sereer-Safèn, an ethnic minority in the Thiès region who converted to Islam in the colonial period.

Searing was working toward UIC’s inclusion in the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Decade for People of African Descent project, with recognition for the Daley Library’s Special Collection on Sierra Leone, the African slave trade and the Caribbean.

He taught undergraduate classes in African history and historical methods and courses in the history graduate program.

Students considered him a “tireless advocate” on their behalf, said Kevin Schultz, associate professor of history and Catholic studies.

“He always offered a humane perspective on the profession they were about to enter,” he said.

“Jim was a force of nature and pillar of our department,” said Christopher Boyer, associate professor of history and Latin American and Latino studies.

“Over the years, I realized that I would do well to emulate his commitment to the places he studied, to his students and to the university.”

Searing earned a bachelor’s degree in English and German literature from Fairhaven College of Western Washington State University. He received a master’s degree in Africa and Modern France from the University of Washington and a doctorate degree with a focus on African history from Princeton University.

He is survived by his wife, Patricia Hickling, a daughter, Allison McKim, and two sons, Alexander and Keith.

A memorial service was held Dec. 8 in the Daley Library. Plans for a memorial fund will be announced later.

To add a comment or share a memory about Searing, visit the history department’s memorial website.

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