William Leo Hansberry

Born on February 25, 1894 in Gloster, Mississippi, William Leo Hansberry developed an early interest in ancient history. While a student at Atlanta University, he credits Du Bois’ The Negro with setting him on the path to undertake the serious study of African deep history. Hansberry would become one of the first African American students at Harvard University, completing an A.B. and M.A. in Anthropology.

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Image of William Leo Hansberry

After graduating, he taught courses in Howard University’s History Department such as “Negro Peoples in the Cultures and Civilizations of Prehistoric and Proto-historic Times,” “Ancient Civilizations of Ethiopia” and The Civilizations of West Africa in Medieval and Early Modern Times,” in the 1920s at a moment when many ‘scholars’ were arguing that Africa had no history worthy of scholarly investigation. 

In life, Hansberry stressed the need for rigorous, transdisciplinary research to undertake the study of Africa people and focused much of his work on Ancient Nile Valley Civilizations and the modern-day Horn of Africa. He completed postgraduate studies at the University of Chicago, Oxford University, and the University of Cairo and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Sudan and Egypt. Hansberry was unable to acquire a Ph.D. as no university was equipped to supervise his research. However, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Nigeria, and the Center for African Studies was named in his honor. He was further awarded the Haile Selassie Award for African Research by the Emperor of Ethiopia. 

Hansberry was committed to expanding our understanding of Africa’s past and building pride and confidence in Black people. When existing material proved inadequate, he created his own textbooks. Hansberry not only led the way in establishing the tradition of (Africana) Nubiology, but he also provided the intellectual foundation for Africanist research and scholarship. Hansberry argued for the centrality of Nubia and influence from further south in the Nile Valley long before the discipline distinguished itself as a field of study separate from Egyptology. Hansberry’s research presents a model for transdisciplinary engagement which includes the disciplines of Nubiology, Egyptology, Africanist scholarship and Africana Studies, and it is for this reason that the Hansberry Society maintains an intellectual rapport between these fields of study as a basis for reintegrating the history of ancient African civilizations.

Hansberry’s commitment to African people extended beyond academia, co-founding the Ethiopian Research Council (1934) and the African-American Institute in 1953 (now known as the Africa-America Institute). The full scope of his contribution and intellectual work has yet to be realized, and the Hansberry Society hopes to continue in his tradition.