Roy Bryce-Laporte, an influential sociologist who served as the founding director of Yale’s African American Studies Department, died July 31 in Maryland. He was 78.

Born in Panama, Bryce-Laporte dedicated his life to studying the African diaspora and black immigration to the United States after attending racially segregated schools in the Panama Canal Zone. He was the founding director of the Research Institute on Immigration and Ethnic Studies at the Smithsonian Institution, and led Yale’s African American studies program for three years after it was established in 1969.

Wendell Bell, who helped found Yale’s African American studies department and served as the then-chair of the sociology department, asked Bryce-Laporte to head the new department in the late 1960s, just years after the two met at a sociology convention in San Diego, Calif.

“I thought he was a very good and competent scholar,” Bell said of his decision to recommend Bryce-Laporte for the post. “He was someone whose knowledge and whose commitment and understanding transcended national borders.”

Though Bell said Bryce-Laporte faced challenges leading the new department, juggling its limited resources and developing its reputation, he praised the work Bryce-Laporte did during his “very crucial” three years at Yale. Despite the odds, Bell said, Bryce-Laporte was a “tremendous diplomat” who worked hard and successfully to launch the program off the ground.

“He just never quit. He just kept going … [and] he had a tremendous amount of empathy and understanding and for all walks of life,” Bell said.

Bryce-Laporte moved with his family to the United States in the late 1950s after graduating with an associate’s degree from Panama Canal College in 1954 and teaching elementary school students in the Canal Zone. He went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Nebraska and a doctorate in sociology from the University of California at Los Angeles.

As the eldest of five children, Roy Bryce-Laporte was “third in command” in his household in Panama, said his brother, Herrington Bryce, a business professor at the College of William and Mary. Roy motivated his siblings to achieve and helped them finance their educations in the United States, his brother said.

“My parents wanted us to [come to the U.S.] but had not the slightest idea of how to get it done,” he said. “Roy did.”

Bryce-Laporte’s friends and family described the late scholar as a dedicated and driven role model who pushed them to succeed while furthering his own scholarship.

Ricardo Millett, the president of the nonprofit group Woods Fund of Chicago, said Bryce-Laporte was his mentor and “north star.” Bryce-Laporte had been his fifth-grade teacher in Panama and represented a person of West Indian descent who could build a successful career despite what Millett described as Panama’s “cauldron of racial segregation.”

“Bryce paved the way,” Millett said. “He not only went to Jamaica or the West Indies, but he went to the United States. He not only got a bachelors and a masters, but he got a Ph.D … He applied his knowledge and credentials to make the world understand the labors of the West Indies community.”

That understanding of West Indies peoples came through Bryce-Laporte’s research, which focused on the African diaspora in the Caribbean and in Latin America.

In addition to his time at Yale, Bryce-Laporte taught sociology and anthropology and was the director of the Africana and Latin American Studies program at Colgate University. Luis Mateo, a former student at Colgate said in a tribute to Bryce-Laporte published after his retirement in 2000 that the late professor had been a “very special person” in his life. He credited Bryce-Laporte with piquing his interest in the social sciences and serving as his mentor long after his graduation from Colgate.

Bryce-Laporte was also a talented whistler, trombone player and salsa dancer, his brother said, adding that Bryce-Laporte spoke Spanish so fluently that “in many respects, Spanish was his first language.”

Bryce-Laporte’s memorial service was held at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 11. He is survived by his companion, Marian Holness; his brother; two sisters, Celestina Carter and Yvonne St. Hill; three children, Robertino, Rene and Camila Bryce-Laporte Morris; and his three grandsons.

Correction: Aug. 18, 2012

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Roy Bryce-Laporte’s companion, Marian Holness.