On February 25th, 1894, William Leo Hansberry was born in Gloster, Mississippi, to parents Elden Hayes and Pauline Hansberry. His father Elden Hayes was a noted history professor at Alcorn A&M College, Mr. Hayes died when William was three years old leaving behind two sons and their mother. William Hansberry was the older brother of the famed civil rights activist and real estate broker Carl Augustus Hansberry, who is the father of author Loraine Hansberry. After the death of his father, William Hansberry acquired his father’s library of history books, which he studied daily, and started him on a path that would inspire generations of African people to learn their past. In 1915, Hansberry began his freshman year at Atlanta University equipped with the knowledge he gained from reading his father’s books about ancient Rome and Greece but was exposed to information about ancient civilizations on the continent of Africa, which piqued his interest and he had to learn more. His interest was further piqued after reading “The Negro” by W.E.B. Dubois, the book exposed Hansberry to other black historical authors and books on the history of Africa. Using the references included within “The Negro” he searched for the books listed but was disappointed when he learned Atlanta University didn’t have the resources to properly study ancient African civilizations. Inspired by “The Negro” he decided to transfer to Harvard University in 1917 to further his studies of Ancient Africa.
Unfortunately, Atlanta University couldn’t meet his needs, but he was able to transfer to Harvard to take advantage of their resources, which he would use to empower African people. Hansberry graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in 1921, then moved to New Orleans, Louisiana to become a history professor at Straight College, before accepting a position at Howard University to become a history professor. It was at Howard University that Hansberry created his African societies curriculum, along with creating the African Civilizations Section of the Howard history department. Hansberry was holding true to his mission of gaining as much information about African civilizations so his people could be able to learn about their own history. Hansberry’s impact was beginning to be felt throughout America’s African American community. The African societies curriculum he created was no longer only being taught at Howard, other African American colleges were using his curriculum to educate their students about their history. Hansberry was able to travel to many colleges and universities giving lectures with pictures of Ancient African civilizations, inspiring faculty, and staff, which led to the institutions using his curriculum.
1925, began the decline of the relationship between Professor William Leo Hansberry and Howard University. That year, a symposium on “The Cultures and Civilizations of Negro Peoples in Africa” was sponsored by Howard, Hansberry, and his students presented 28 remarkable papers on evidence they gathered to prove the validity of the existence of ancient African civilizations. They were so impressive that they even provided actual archeological evidence of the existence of these civilizations. Hansberry and his students presented breakthrough evidence and information, but the administration at Howard University directly challenged the validity of Hansberry and his student’s findings. They were even challenged by the president of the university. The Howard administration was not happy with the information Hansberry and his team presented, they challenged the information on every level, the information was found to be credible, but Hansberry was still demoted and unable to gain his tenure. It’s amazing that a black man, at a black institution of higher learning, was punished for teaching black students about black history. Hansberry would go on to earn his master’s degree from Harvard University in 1932. Along the way to earning his master’s, he was able to study at Oxford University and the Chicago Oriental Institute; his reputation for being an expert on the history of African civilizations was spreading rapidly. Hansberry was traveling the globe lecturing about African civilizations and his reputation was growing so much that Howard promoted him to an associate professor position which gave him tenure.
At this time, Hansberry was one of, if not, the world’s authority on ancient African civilizations, he was so knowledgeable that he was unable to earn a Ph.D. because no one at the university he attended had enough information to approve his dissertation. Hansberry was not only a world-recognized authority on the history of ancient African civilizations, but he was a mentor to many students who would become prominent figures throughout the world, Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe are his two most notable students. Nkrumah would become the first prime minister and president of Ghana, and Azikiwe would become the first president of Nigeria. Nkrumah, Azikiwe, and admirers all around understood the importance of Hansberry’s work and sought to help him in many ways publish and distribute his information. Hansberry was honored in 1963 as an academic center was named after him. He received the first Haile Selassie Prize, for his continuous work in revealing Ethiopian history, but his work was still being challenged by the administration at Howard University. A faculty or administration member accused Hansberry of teaching African history with no proof to validate his information, once again Hansberry had to defend his work, delaying his tenure, which he didn’t gain until 1938. 1959, was the year Hansberry retired from Howard University, leaving behind a strained relationship with the institution, but also blazing a historical path many historians behind him were able to travel. Hansberry died in 1965. Before his death, he prepared manuscripts for books but did not publish them. “Pillars in Ethiopian History” was published in 1974, and “Africa and Africans as Seen by Classical Writers” were published in 1977. Professor William Leo Hansberry, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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