James Edward Ponzo II

Published April 11, 2024

James Ponzo.

A service will be held April 13 for James Edward Ponzo II, assistant professor in the Department of Africana and American Studies who died April 4. He was 46.

Ponzo’s dedication to social justice defined his character and led him to a career in higher education. His commitment to education earned him an Arthur A. Schomburg Fellowship and garnered him a nomination for the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence. He received his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD from UB. After his PhD was conferred, he secured a faculty position teaching in the Department of Africana and American Studies at UB.

Faculty and staff close to Ponzo say his passing is a great loss, not only to the department, but the broader UB community, choosing such words as “amazing” and “brilliant” to describe their colleague. His work at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center was featured in the “Secret Agents of the Underground Railroad” episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s series “The Nature of Things,” which documented the site’s historical significance. 

“He had the ability to naturally draw in and connect with students, says Deborah Pierce-Tate, administrator and lecturer in Africana and American studies. “I knew him as an eager undergraduate student and saw him become a brilliant professor. He was in the beginning stages of his career and had an incredibly bright future ahead of him.”

“He was born an academic in the sense that he was extremely passionate about his work — both as a teacher and as a scholar,” says Y.G. Lulat, associate professor in the department. “He has left a huge hole in the department.

“But beyond that, my memories of him as a human being will always be underlined by his incredibly amazing courage,” Lulat adds. “He dealt with his immensely difficult health circumstance with aplomb, almost to the point of nonchalance.”

Cecil Foster, professor in the department, notes that Ponzo loved his scholarship: anything to do with James Baldwin and Ta-Nihisi Coates, African American experiences and achievements, the department and his teaching.

“He loved his students and they loved him, too,” says Foster. “Many students have told him how he inspired them by setting an example. Our department and our collective humanity are poorer without our dear student and colleague.”

More memories and sentiments can be viewed on the Lombardo Funeral Home tribute wall.

Visiting hours will begin at 3 p.m. April 13 at the Lombardo Funeral Home at 885 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst, with a service to follow at 5 p.m. The Department of Africana and American Studies will hold a service to remember and celebrate Ponzo from 2–5 p.m. May 1 in 509 O’Brian Hall.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center.