Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dr. William Leo Hansberry
Great North American African Historian

24 February 2009

Greetings Family,

How are you? February 25 is the birthday of William Leo Hansberry. He was one of our greatest scholars. He was uncle to Lorraine Hansberry--the great African-American writer. Professor Hansberry taught at Howard University, a historically Black university, for a long time and and was a constant victim of abuse and neglect there. History has shown us that sometimes our own people can be as cruel as white folks. But Hansberry persevered and managed to shine in spite of everything. Indeed, I have heard stories of how the great Marcus Garvey himself would sometimes take the train from New York to Washington, DC and spend the day in Hansberry's office at Howard U. talking about ancient Egypt! How I would have liked to have been in on those conversations!

Anyway, here is a brief birthday tribute to the great William Leo Hansberry. The first section is written by brother Runoko. The second section is from the great Chancellor James Williams.

In love of Africa,

Runoko Rashidi





Professor William Leo Hansberry-- one of the most distinguished and determined Africanist scholars of the twentieth century, was born in Gloster, Mississippi on 25 February 1894. He attended Atlanta University in 1916 where he came under the Influence of Dr. William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1868-1963). In 1917, Hansberry transferred to Harvard University, where he received his BA degree in 1921 and MA degree in 1932. Hansberry conducted research at the University of Chicago in 1936, Oxford University In 1937 and 1938 and the University of Cairo in 1953 and 1954.

After teaching for a year at Straight College in New Orleans, in September 1922, Hansberry joined the faculty of Howard University where he taught courses on African civilizations and cultures until his retirement in June 1959. In 1922, Professor Hansberry Initiated the African Civilization Section of the Howard University History Department. In June 1925, he organized and coordinated a major symposium and exhibition held at Howard, where twenty-eight scholarly papers were presented by his students--sixteen of which were women.

In August 1927, Hansberry spoke at the Fourth Pan-African Conference in New York on the topic of archaeological research in Africa and its significance for African people. In 1934, he helped organize the Ethiopian Research Council. The aims of this council were to "Stimulate interest in Ethiopia's efforts to resist the Italian invasion, and to disseminate information on Ethiopian history, ancient and modern. Correspondents were located in London, Paris, Rome and Addis Ababa; affiliates were listed in Ethiopia, France, and Panama, in addition to Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia."

During the mid-1950's, Hansberry engaged in field research in Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zaire, Ghana, and Nigeria. He also visited Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, and Liberia. In 1955, for the Journal of Negro Education, he reviewed George G.M. James' classic--Stolen Legacy. In 1955 and 1956, for the Washington Post and Africa Today, he reviewed Ghanaian scholar J.C. deGraft-Johnson's African Glory: The Story of Vanished Negro Civilizations. Although, Hansberry produced a number of Impressive written works, It is highly unfortunate that his own magnum opus, The Rise and Decline of the Ethiopian Empire, was never published, although, both Kwame Nkrumah and Noamdi Azikiwe invited him to publish the work in Africa.

Hansberry was slighted and snubbed for much of his life, not only by white academia, but by many of his Black academic colleagues, as well. One of his greatest consolations though, was the love, admiration and respect of his students. Besides Dr. Chancellor Williams, one of Hansberry's most prominent pupils, there was Noamdi Azikiwe, who became the first President of the, Federal Republic of Nigeria. Lorraine Hansberry, the brilliant African American playwright, was Hansberry's niece.

On 22 September 1963, Hansberry delivered the inaugural address at the formal opening of the Hanaberry College of African Studies at Nsukka, University of Nigeria. In 1964, he became the first recipient of the African Research Award from the Haile Selassie I Prize Trust. On 3 November, 1965, at the age of 71, William Leo Hansberry died of a cerebral hemorrhage. His contributions, however, live on.






I think of Professor Hansberry as a personal friend first, and as a master teacher second. That he was a distinguished scholar even when we were his students was well established. Bur for many of us who studied with him (he would never say "under" him) the atmosphere of that at-ease, friendly classroom created the primary condition for both teaching and learning. For what happened was that his almost passionate love for the race included its sons and daughters--a fact never spoken and indeed, did not need to be spoken. It was reflected in his attitude. We returned it in full, and our affection continued during all the passing years since we left his classroom.

Reference to "we" here is to a core group of us who were deeply interested in learning about our own history as well as the history of the whites. This meant that we were all a small minority, for at that time the attitude of the great majority of both faculty and students was one of contempt even for the term "Africa," or cold indifference. This means that William Leo Hansberry, with his non-prestigious African history courses, calmly endured the belittling remarks and supercilious smiles of many of his colleagues throughout the many years as he stood courageously and almost alone as a teacher of Black history in the United States. And the same academic attitudes that caused his work to be regarded as just so much "wishful thinking" or Romantic fiction, also held him firmly in the lower ranks until near the end of his career. In short, throughout his career he paid dearly for teaching Black history.

But one of the tragic consequences of all this--and the only reason I am discussing it all--was that he would not publish a single volume from what was doubtless the most detailed and massive body of research on the Black race that had ever been assembled by one man. We knew that, had he wished to do so, at least one volume could have been published over twenty years ago. We knew this because, since there were no adequate textbooks on African history available (and still are not), he prepared for the class scores of documents from his research, with sources listed. And while these were directly relevant to the courses, these alone were enough for a book. When some of us who were closest to him urged publication, we always received the same friendly smile, but with the firm reply: "I am not ready yet." Even when we asked about publication we not only knew what the answer would be, but we knew the reason for it, because we ourselves were a part of his

The life and work of this remarkable man influenced mine directly. For while I resolved to take up the work where he left off, I took it up defiantly and with the high resolve that, having slowly and painstakingly carried on the research on the highest level of scholarship as he did, I would not care a snap about what either white or Negro critics think or say about my works.

The final and lasting Hansberry influence was how to proceed without any show of bitterness and even act as though you were totally unaware of the covert criticisms of "friends." It was as though he foresaw the Black youth revolution that was to justify and honor his pioneering labors. And I like to think that if from afar he is looking on the Department of History he loved to the end, he will say "Well done!"

Chancellor Williams Senior Professor of African History Department of History Howard University


* Published in A Tribute to the Memory of Professor William Leo Hansberry. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Department of History, 1972: 17-18.

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