Hansberry spent most of his professional career attempting to rescue African history from the denigrated status Europeans had established for it. He was fascinated by the obsession of the early writers with Ethiopia. He read Greek and Latin which allowed Hansberry to evaluate the primary sources and teach about the prominence of ancient “Ethiopia,” although he did question the name. Hansberry wrote that the designation itself was “distinctly a European product, for no Africans referred to themselves as Ethiopians or their country as Ethiopia until after Europeans coined the label.” His pioneering work helped pave the way for African historical studies as a formal academic discipline in colleges and universities. He has been called the “Father of African Studies.”
While a undergraduate student at Harvard University, Hansberry read Greek and Roman texts and studied archaeological evidence, and became convinced that sophisticated civilizations had existed in Africa – especially in Ethiopia – for centuries prior to the rise of any civilizations in Europe. A circular letter announcing his desire to develop courses on African civilizations landed him a temporary job at Howard University in Washington D.C., following his graduation from Harvard in 1921. At Howard University in 1922, Hansberry quickly built his new program (“African Civilization Section” of the History Department) into one of the most popular undergraduate majors on the campus, and within two years he established three courses in which more than 800 students had enrolled, and he hosted international conferences to stimulate the study of ancient and medieval African societies.
By the mid-1920s, however, he ran afoul not only of the wider white academic community, which was extremely skeptical of Hansberry’s ambitious claims, but also of senior colleagues at Howard, who believed he was giving the university a bad name by teaching assertions for which there was little or no compelling evidence. The Howard board settled the dispute by retaining the popular African program, while relegating Hansberry himself to a secondary position without tenure. He received his masters from Harvard in 1932, and did additional post-graduate work at the University of Chicago’s Oriental institute, Oxford University, and Cairo University. Not until after WWII in the 1940s did Howard University finally promote him to associate professor with tenure, and during the 1950s he lectured and traveled widely throughout Africa.
Hansberry’s knowledge of African Studies was so vast that he was unable to obtain a Ph.D. because there was no school with faculty members qualified to supervise his dissertation. It was not until 1972, at the 50th anniversary of Hansberry’s founding of the African Civilization Section that posthumously his students (and by extension Howard University finally) gave Hansberry his proper due as a respected pioneer in the legitimate field of African Studies. He led the reinterpretation of African history for his generation.
Ampim, Manu. “History Of African Civilizations, History 110 Course Reader.” Unit 3: Classical African Civilizations (Kush). Oakland, CA: Advancing The Research, 2016. 45-46.