Detroit cultural leaders paid tribute at week’s end to Dr. Robert E. L. Perkins, a vigorous champion of African-American arts who died Aug. 25. The Palmer Woods resident was 92.
Perkins, who grew up in Texas and graduated from Howard University’s dental school in Washington, was an oral surgeon until his retirement in 1994, is said to have been the first black oral surgeon in Michigan.
However, the man’s deepest passions were rooted in the arts and supporting Detroit’s cultural big three: the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Institute of Arts and the Michigan Opera Theatre.
“Dr. Perkins was visionary, graceful and kind,” said Erik Rönmark, DSO vice president and general manager, noting that the dentist, a longtime DSO board member, was instrumental 40 years ago in launching the orchestra’s annual Classical Roots Celebration, which spotlights black composers and musicians.
“Dr. Perkins supported us with his mind and with his money,” Rönmark said. “He was just a giant for our organization.”
The oral surgeon also was a big supporter of Detroit’s Brazeal Dennard Chorale.
Wayne S. Brown, CEO and president of the Michigan Opera Theatre, knew Perkins, who was single and had no children, for over 30 years.
“We served together on the board of Your Heritage House,” he said, referring to the one-time children’s museum near the DIA, “and I also brought him to Washington to sit on opera panels for the National Endowment for the Arts during my time there.”
Of his friend and neighbor, Brown said, “He was quiet and determined — an elegant man. He sought to make a difference. And he did.”
Perkins’ interests were not limited to music. He endowed a scholarship at Howard University and was for many years on the board of the Friends of African and African-American Art at the DIA.
Perkins also sat on the museum’s Collections Committee.
Nii Quarcoopome, DIA co-chief curator and head of African art, spoke at Perkins’ funeral Thursday at Detroit’s St. John’s C.M.E. Church on Woodward.
The two met shortly after the Quarcoopome arrived in Detroit 15 years ago. They became friends, and collaborated on expanding the museum’s African collections.
“Dr. Perkins understood the value of learning about the African and African-American cultural legacy,” he said, “so the current generation can move forward with dignity and strength.”
Quarcoopome echoed what others said about the man’s kindness and generosity, but added a key observation:
“Dr. Perkins was also very, very witty.”