William Leo Hansberry
Born William Leo Hansberry, February 25, 1894, in Gloster, MS; died of cerebral hemorrhage, November 3, 1965, in Chicago, IL; son of Elden Hayes and Pauline (Bailey) Hansberry; married Myrtle Kelso, 1937; children: Gail Adelle, Myrtle Kay.
Harvard University, B.A., 1921, M.A., 1932. Attended Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, 1936-37; Oxford University, 1937-38; Cairo University, 1953.
Howard University, professor of history, 1922-59; University of Nigeria, visiting professor, 1963.
Award of Honor, African Student Association of the U. S. and Africa, 1951, 1959, 1963; Fullbright Scholarship, 1953; Bronze Citation for “Forty Years of Service in the Cause of African Freedom,” United Friends of Africa, 1961; Achievement Award, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, 1961; Hansberry Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, established in his name, 1963; First African Research Award, Haile Selassie I Prize Trust, 1964. Honorary degrees include: Doctor of Letters, University of Nigeria; Doctor of Laws, Morgan College.
- Pillars in Ethiopian History: The William Leo Hansberry African History Notebook, vol. I, edited by Joseph E. Harris, Howard University Press, 1974.
- Africa and Africans As Seen by Classical Writers: The William Leo Hansberry History Notebook, vol. II, edited by Joseph E. Harris, Howard University Press, 1977.
William Leo Hansberry was a man born one generation too soon. A pioneer in the study of ancient African history, he started his career at Howard University in 1922. It was a time when the black academic community was far more concerned with creating a livable present than with resurrecting an ancestral past. It was also a time when many white scholars were still mired in the racist tradition that saw all blacks as intellectual inferiors. Therefore, Hansberry’s insistence on studying long-gone communities at first earned him little support from either camp.
Recognition finally came in the early 1950s. During this time, many African countries, long held under colonial rule, began their conversion to self-governance. Searching for proof that African societies had, at one time, a sophisticated cultural history, and could reach these heights again, these new regimes treated Hansberry’s research into their societies with deep respect. The international attention he received prompted his U.S. colleagues to take a second look at his work, and to acknowledge, at last, his contribution to the study of ancient African culture.
The direction of Hansberry’s life was set by his father, Elden Hansberry, who taught history at Alcorn College in Gloster, Mississippi. The elder Hansberry died when his son was scarcely three years old, but he left him the priceless legacy of a library on culture and customs of the ancient world. Young Leo enjoyed reading his late father’s collection of books. He could not help wondering, however, why they held so much information about the glorious histories of Greece, Rome, and even faraway China, but so little about Africa, the home of his own ancestors.
In 1915 Hansberry entered Atlanta University as a freshman. The history of the ancient world continued to fascinate him, but the mystery of Africa’s shadowy past was not solved by his course work. Extra-curricular reading proved no more enlightening, for only two types of information seemed to be available. The first, as represented by the Old Testament of the Bible, mentioned such countries as Kush andEthiopia, but gave no details of their inhabitants’ lives. The second category of African history tended to emphasize either the supposedly civilizing influence of the slave trade or the rescue of the indigenous population from hopeless ignorance by white colonial missionaries.
An example of this parochial thinking appears in a book called Howard University Department of History, 1913-1973, written by faculty member Michael Winston. To show how the Jim Crow laws of the late 19th century perpetuated such so-called white superiority, Winston resurrected the following opinion of “the archetypal black person” aired during a U.S. Senate session of February 1914 by then-Senator James K. Vardaman of Mississippi. “He has never had any civilization except that which has been inculcated by a superior race,” said Vardaman. “And it is lamentable that his civilization lasts only so long as he is in the hands of the white man who inculcates it ….”
Hansberry was unconvinced by Vardaman’s assertion that Africa’s entire indigenous population owed all the wisdom they possessed to their European conquerors. He could find no respected social scientist to support his own dissent until 1916, when a new volume of essays on race was published by Atlanta University’s Department of Sociology. In two of the essays, “Old African Civilizations” by Franz Boas, then an anthropology professor at Columbia University, and “The Contribution of the Negro to Human Civilization” by A. F. Chamberlain, did Hansberry finally find confirmation of his opinion that the modern march of progress owed much to Africa and her ancient societies. Later that year he found another source of support in the work of activist W. E. B. Du Bois. The first black scholar to gain a Ph.D. from Harvard University, Du Bois was well known nation-wide as a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and editor of the NAACP’s journal entitled The Crisis.
Du Bois had also recently gained attention as the author of a new book called The Negro. A devoted follower of Du Bois’ trailblazing work, Hansberry bought a copy of the new book and read it immediately. As he had hoped, Du Bois mentioned not only the Greek historian Herodotus, but also several Latin writers who had acknowledged the existence of Kushite, Ethiopian, and other sophisticated African kingdoms predating their own Roman Empire by centuries. Eagerly he rushed to the library to request each precious reference that Du Bois had cited. But Atlanta University was not equipped for detailed study of the more obscure antiquities. Its shelves offered a meager selection so disappointing to him that he decided to transfer to the best- equipped academic institution open to blacks that he could find. Two weeks into his sophomore year he left Atlanta to attend Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Hansberry arrived in Cambridge in February of 1917, and plunged immediately into the work that was to occupy him for the rest of his life. African archeology, anthropology, ethnology, and paleontology became the focus of his existence, with courses in the history of science providing a systematic backbone for future research. Yet, while he found encouragement and friendship from Dr. E. A. Hooton of Harvard’s renowned Peabody Museum, he found little support for his conviction that indigenous African people had played the most important roles in the shaping of their own communities. Even at Harvard, he noted, the prevailing scholarly belief of the time was that the Africans who had made contributions to civilization were not blacks at all. Instead, it was thought that they, similar to the inhabitants of India, were members of predominantly brown races.
In 1921 Hansberry left Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, and a burning determination to stamp out American ignorance of what was derogatorily known as the Dark Continent. As a first step he designed a flier called “Announcing an Effort to Promote the Study and Facilitate the Teaching of the Fundamentals of Negro Life and History.” He mailed it to several black schools and colleges to express his interest in helping those institutions replace what he considered to be the dangerous revisionist history they were teaching. He wanted to encourage educators to teach black students about their real roots. He felt such instruction could lift students out of the humiliating bigotry that was a part of their lives, and give them some badly needed pride in their heritage.
Hansberry picked a good time to launch his project. A consciousness surrounding black-influenced culture was awakening, thanks to the emergence of the back-to-Africa movement of Marcus Garvey, the newly-popular black-inspired jazz music and dance scene, and the Harlem Renaissance period of talented writers and artists. Nevertheless, many white Americans who enjoyed these novel additions to their culture were unaware of the ancient African roots from which they sprang. Several recipients of Hansberry’s flier conceded this point and offered him cordial invitations to visit their schools and colleges.
Among the invitations Hansberry received were three offers of long term employment. One offer, that was impossible to pass up, came from Howard University. Situated just a stone’s throw from the great Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., well-entrenched on the educational front since 1867, and reasonably well-funded, the university informed him that they were planning to expand their history curriculum by adding a new section on African studies. Howard added that a teaching post would soon be available if Hansberry chose to consider it.
Pausing only to honor a year-long teaching contract at Straight College in Atlanta, Hansberry arrived at Howard University in 1922, and quickly established three new courses. “Negro Peoples in the Cultures and Civilizations of Prehistoric and Proto-Historic Times” was a general survey, based partly on archeological and anthropological finds in Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures of Africa. “The Ancient Civilizations of Ethiopia” covered the present-day Sudan and Egyptian areas, while “The Civilization of West Africa in Medieval and Early Modern Times” moved the student ahead to the fifteenth century and beyond. Each of these programs was based on his profound belief that the earliest beginnings of higher human culture sprang not from Asia, as the prevailing theory of the time specified, but from Africa. His theory proved vastly popular with Howard’s history students, and by 1925 the department’s new section of African Studies boasted upward of 800 undergraduates.
Hansberry’s success did not bring universal approval, however. In fact, two distinguished faculty members went to then-Howard University president Stanley Durkee and accused Hansberry of endangering Howard’s reputation by teaching subject matter for which he had no proof. As a result the university’s board of trustees came perilously close to closing his program. To prevent this, Hansberry justified his opinions with a sheaf of detailed documents, among them a meticulously annotated bibliography he had amassed while chronicling the passing centuries of Africa’s history. Arranged by subject, the list covered a dazzling array of primary sources ranging from the diaries of Roman travelers such as Pliny the Elder through the Amharic and Coptic accounts of the Middle Ages. His documents also included up-to-the-minute papers written by the modern Egyptologists responsible for the excavation of the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh King Tutankhamen in 1922. His list was an impressive achievement. Hansberry knew however, it was not enough to prove his academic integrity so he also took care to spell out for the board his long term goal–to use these sources to produce a narrative, chronological, history of ancient and medieval Africa. This effort to save his career, though diligent, was only moderately successful.
In the end, the Howard board of trustees rescinded its decision to discontinue African Studies, but refused to reinstate Hansberry’s former financial support. His tainted status marred the rest of his 30-plus years at Howard. As a little-respected member of the university faculty, he found reimbursements for classroom equipment suddenly unavailable. Study grants and work-related travel expenses became bureaucratically impossible to obtain. Even a hard-earned promotion was systematically denied him until 1938, when he was at last elevated to an assistant professorship. Still, he refused to let these problems intimidate him. Philosophically he put the opposition down to public ignorance of the widely scattered and extremely technical sources he had used to reach his conclusions. Therefore, he set for himself the mammoth task of bringing the contents of his research out of arcane obscurity, so that anyone interested could understand what he was trying to achieve.
While the 1920s could be characterized as the direction-finding decade of Hansberry’s career, the 1930s signaled a concern with his own continuing education. In 1932 he went back to Harvard University for a master’s degree in anthropology and history, following up in 1936 to 1937 with further post-graduate study at the University of Chicago’s renowned Oriental Institute. Next, he was awarded a two-year Rockefeller Foundation grant that enabled him to study at Oxford University in England. This small breakthrough proved temporary, however, for the grant was abruptly terminated without explanation after just one year. Hansberry chose to regard this unexpected free time as a bonus, attending European conferences and visiting museums, where he carried out in-depth studies of artifacts gathered by the Leakey family and other eminent scholars of the time.
Hansberry tried to get other financial grants that would support him while he furthered his research, but he was largely unsuccessful. Two possible reasons have been cited for this frustrating failure. The first may have been due to the general academic trend, which was still following the tenets of A Study of History by the influential Arnold Toynbee. First published in 1934, it expressed his blunt opinion that “the only primary race that has not made a creative contribution to any civilization is the Black Race,” a view that stood unaltered on page 233 of a condensed 1962 edition, in proud defiance of the growing civil rights movement.
The second possible obstacle to grant money for Hansberry resulted from the new modus operandi of the universities that catered to black students. The accreditation of these schools became a crucial issue in terms of both federal funding and the post-graduate opportunities open to their alumnae. For these reasons, these colleges became increasingly unwilling to employ faculty members who had not earned Ph.D. degrees. Lacking this tangible badge of academic excellence, Hansberry was at a competitive disadvantage when grant money was being awarded.
The situation seemed unfair. It was not as if Hansberry had not tried to fill this gap, as a supporting letter from his loyal Harvard mentor, Earnest Hooton, showed. “He [Hansberry] has been unable to take the Ph.D. degree … because … there is no university or institution that has manifested a really profound interest in this subject,” wrote Hooton to the generous Rosenwald Foundation. He added, “no present day scholar has developed anything like the knowledge of this field that Hansberry has developed….” Nevertheless, like several others, this grant did not materialize.
Stymied on two fronts, Hansberry was still an associate professor without tenure as World War II came to an end. But when the century-long colonial stranglehold on Africa began to loosen in the 1950s, his value to the university began to rise. Howard University had long been an educational leader with an international reputation, which made it a natural choice for black undergraduates coming to the United States to study. Now, as nationalism became a closer reality for many African countries and the need for an educated leadership increased, the numbers of foreign students escalated, adding to both Howard’s coffers and its luster.
Unfortunately, not all the newcomers found this adventure to be a happy one. Many foreign students did not have enough money to live on. Most faced the challenges of fitting themselves into an educational and social system completely different from their own, and then transporting their new knowledge into the completely virgin territory of their homelands. Upon return to Africa, they then had to readjust socially, and fit their new cultural knowledge into their former indigenous setting.
Nobody understood these students’ dilemma better Hansberry, who had studied their customs since his youth. His expertise now made him indispensable to the university authorities, who assigned him to the position of faculty advisor to African students in 1946, and followed up in 1950 by appointing him to Howard’s Emergency Aid to the African Students’ Committee. Quietly he took on these added responsibilities. For example, without benefit of secretarial help or typewriter, he wrote hundreds of letters and smoothed out emergencies. In one case, as requested, he even saw to it that the heart of a deceased undergraduate was excised and returned to his Nigerian homeland. Hansberry’s protégés called him the “father of African students,” and several made sure they kept in touch with him after graduation.
With the dawn of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s, knowledge of African American roots became essential to Howard University. Finally, Hansberry’s vast knowledge of Africa and her history became more valuable to the university than his role as the “father of African students.” This may have been the reason why the Fulbright Scholarship for 1953 was awarded to him, finally giving him the means to do fieldwork in Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia, to deliver lectures requested by former students in many parts of Africa, and to serve as a team member on trips to Kenya, Uganda and the mighty Zimbabwe Ruins in what was then Southern Rhodesia. On the negative side however, in his absence, the Ford Foundation had awarded the university a grant to further its African Studies program, from which he had been excluded, despite his 27 years of service.
It is not surprising that his retirement in 1959 brought Hansberry the first real distinction he had ever known. Free to travel as he wished, in 1960, Hansberry accepted an invitation by the government of Ghana to the ceremonies celebrating the establishment of the Republic. That same year, he also made a point of accepting an invitation to visit Nigeria when the country received its independence, and watched with pride as a former student named Nndami Azikiwe became that country’s first president. Ties with Nigeria remained so close that Hansberry was on hand in 1963 as a distinguished visiting professor to inaugurate the Hansberry College of African Studies.
Hansberry took great pleasure in traveling until, when in November of 1965, he died as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage while visiting relatives in Chicago. He never knew of the honor finally paid him by Howard University–a lecture hall bearing his name– dedicated in 1972 to mark his 50 years of association with the university’s Department of History. Regardless, the great contributions he made to the historical study of African culture will live on to the benefit of all future generations.
Davis, John P., American Negro Reference Book, Prentice-Hall, 1966, p. 677.
Dictionary of American Negro Biography, Logan, Rayford W. and Winston, Michael R., eds., W. W. Norton, 1982, p. 284.
Page, James A., Selected Black American Authors: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography, G. K. Hall, 1977, p. 112-13.
Winston, Michael R., Howard University Department of History, 1913-1973, Department of History, Howard University, 1973.
Current Bibliography on African Affairs, November/December 1970, p. 25.
Daedalus, Summer 1971, p. 678.
Ebony, February 1961, p. 62, October 1964, p. 28.
Freedomways, Second Quarter, 1966, p. 161.
Negro History Bulletin, December 1965, p. 63.