Berta Bascom

Adapted from texts written by Research Anthropologist Ira Jacknis.

Berta Bascom (née Berta Montero-Sanchez y Lopez) was born in Havana, Cuba on June 19th, 1919.  After receiving degrees and honors from Havana University and Syracuse University,  she studied folklore and anthropology at Northwestern University under Africanist anthropologist William Bascom, and under the direction of department chair Melville Herskovits, a leader in the field of African and African American studies in American academia at the time. William (Bill) Bascom had received his PhD at Northwestern in 1939, where he subsequently taught anthropology and trained many of the graduate students in the department. In 1948, the same year Berta Montero-Sanchez y Lopez earned her Masters from Northwestern, William Bascom received a grant to study the descendants of western African Yoruba people in Cuba. After she joined him on the trip as a folklorist and anthropologist with personal knowledge of Cuba, Berta and William were married. 

Berta and Bill Bascom in Cuba, 1950.

Over the next decade the Bascoms continued to study Cuban and West African folklore, religion and art, focusing on Afro-Cuban cults and the Yoruba people of Nigeria. In 1957, they came to Berkeley, California where William Bascom served as Director of the Lowie Museum of Anthropology (now the Hearst Museum) and Professor of Anthropology. On their many travels, the Bascoms collected African art and objects of daily life, some of which they donated to the Museum together, and some of which Berta would later donate in memory of her husband who passed in 1981. These collections can be viewed on the Hearst Museum’s Collections Portal. She also made numerous audio recordings of song, story, and language which have been digitized and are available for listening online through the California Language Archive. William and Berta Bascom were among the museum’s most devoted patrons, second only to Phoebe Hearst. Almost every year from 1959 until 1999, the couple made a donation to the museum, eventually totaling 2029 objects, mostly from Africa, but also from the Caribbean, South America, North America, Europe, and the Pacific; in addition to related photographs, films, and sound recordings.

Berta Bascom (left) and the Ataoja, or king, of Oshogbo and his wife in 1951.

Throughout her time at Berkeley and abroad, Berta Bascom was respected for her reputation as a folklorist, appreciated for her lively personality, and noted for her cooking. Her publications include Influencias Africanas en la Cultura Cubana and Seven Afrocuban Myths. In addition, Berta Bascom taught Spanish in Cuba and the United States, including at Anna Head School (now Head-Royce School) in Berkeley.  She was a member of the American Folklore Society, California Academy of Sciences, Sigma Delta Epsilon, Berkeley Yacht Club, and the U.C. Berkeley Faculty Club, and was an honorary emeritus member of the U.C. Anthropology Department.