William Leo Hansberry (1894-1965)

William Leo Hansberry was a prolific African American scholar and educator born to Elden Hayes Hansberry, a history professor at Alcorn A&M, and his wife Pauline Bailey Hansberry, on February 25, 1894.  William was an accomplished student and scholar.  In 1915, he attended Atlanta University, but transferred to Harvard University where he earned a B.A. and a Masters degree.  William engaged in research and post-graduate work at several elite institutions including the prestigious Oxford University in England, which is the oldest University in the English-speaking world; and he also studied at the University of Chicago and Cairo University.

William Hansberry’s career as an educator began at Dillard University in Louisiana, which at the time was called Straight College.  William then went on to found the African Civilization Section of the History Department at Howard University.  William Hansberry was a true pioneer in the academic study of African Civilization.  During a time when most Americans, including many African Americans, believed that Africa had no complex cultures or civilizations, William Hansberry researched and openly taught at the academic level many facts which we today take for granted as true.  Today, with modern archeological techniques and technology, it is widely accepted in the general academic community that Africa is the origin of all human beings, and that humans migrated out of Africa to populate the world.  It is also accepted that “black” Africans developed early and complex civilizations in their own right, and that there is a link between the various peoples and civilizations of Ethiopia, Nubia, Egypt, and the Sahara.  However, when William Hansberry made these claims, he was ridiculed and ostracized, not just by white academics, but by black academics, and specifically his very own colleagues at Howard University.  However, Hansberry sacrificed the prestige of his career, and as his former student Chancellor Williams stated, he “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.”  At Howard University, Prof. William Hansberry influenced and taught a distinguished cadre of students including, Noamdi Azikiwe, the first President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister and president of Ghana, and Dr. Chancellor Williams.

Additionally, William Hansberry was actively involved in global African Affairs.  In 1927, he spoke at the Fourth Pan-African Conference, and in 1934, he helped organize the Ethiopian Research Council, to disseminate information on Ethiopian history and shed light on the resistance against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.  As a historian, William Hansberry engaged in field research in Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zaire, and Ghana, and his work has been duly recognized by many continental Africans.  In 1963, the Hansberry College of African Studies at Nsukka, University of Nigeria was opened in his honor, and William Hansberry delivered the inaugural address at the formal opening.  In 1964, the Emperor Haile Selassie Trust selected William Hansberry to receive the first prize for original work in African History, Archaeology, and Anthropology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, making Hansberry the first recipient of the African Research Award.  William Hansberry died on November 3, 1965; he was married to Myrtle Kelso, and had two children, Gail Adelle Hansberry and Myrtle Kay Hansberry.  William was a true trailblazer who left an enduring global academic legacy.

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