William Leo Hansberry (February 25, 1894óNovember 3, 1965) was an American scholar and lecturer. His was the older brother of real estate broker Carl Augustus Hansberry, uncle of award-winning playwright Lorraine Hansberry and great-granduncle of actress Taye Hansberry.
Hansberry was born on February 25, 1894 in Gloster, Amite County, Mississippi. He was the son of Elden Hayes and Pauline (Bailey) Hansberry. His father taught history at Alcorn A&M in Lorman, Mississippi, but died when the younger Hansberry was only three years old. He and his younger brother, Carl Augustus Hansberry, where raised by their stepfather, Elijah Washington.
Read a letter written by William Leo Hansberry, free from the Internet Archive.
In 1915, he attended Atlanta University, where he was exposed to a new volume of essays on race (published by the university's Sociology Department), which served as a major influence on him. Another big influence was the book, "The Negro" by W. E. B. Du Bois. After, he purchased a copy of the book, he rushed to the school's library to refer to the references cited in the volume. To his dismay, Hansberry discovered Atlanta University's reference library to be sorely lacking. As a result, he left Atlanta University two weeks into his sophomore year to transfer to the best-equipped university he could find that would admit blacks. As a result, he began studies at Harvard University in February 1917. where he completed his undergraduate studies in 1921.
Upon his graduation from Harvard, Hansberry taught for a year at Straight College (now Dillard University) in New Orleans. In September 1922, Hansberry joined the faculty of Howard University where he started the African Civilization Section of the History Department.
Hansberry received his Masters from Harvard in 1932. Additional post-graduate work was done at the University of Chicago, Oxford University and Cairo University. His 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.
As a professor at Howard, Hansberry taught courses on African civilizations and cultures. By the mid-1930s, he was internationally recognized by his peers as an outstanding scholar in his field. Among his students were two future African leaders. One was the future Ghanaian revolutionary, Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah would later become the first prime minister and president of Ghana. The other was Nnamdi Azikiwe, who studied anthropology under him from 1928 to 1929 and wrote a eulogy for him. Azikize would become the first president of Nigeria. In 1961, then-Nigerian Governor-General Azikiwe thought Hansberry's work so important that he offered to underwrite the publication of his major work, The Rise and Decline of the Ethiopian Empire.
Although Hansberry's courses were very popular with students, two distinguished faculty members accused Hansberry of teaching subject matter without adequate research to support it. With the program and his job on the line, Hansberry presented the Board of Trustees with detailed documentation of his research. While he managed to save the African studies program, Hansberry's research funding was cut off and he would not receive tenure until 1938.
Despite the extensive research he conducted over his lifetime, Hansberry was very reluctant to have his work published. James Williams, one of his former students and later a Senior Professor of African History at Howard, recalled in 1972 that when his students urged publication of his work, Hansberry would smile, but always firmly reply, "I am not ready yet."Hansberry retired from Howard in June 1959.
He married Myrtle Kelso (September 24, 1908óMay 1980) of Meridian, Lauderdale County, Mississippi, on June 22, 1937 in Chicago. She is the daughter of Wiley and Mamie Kelso. Two children were born to this union:
While visiting relatives in Chicago, Hansberry died at Billings Hospital of a cerebral hemorrage on November 3, 1965. He had the same cause of death as his brother.
In 1972, he finally received recognition from the university that had snubbed him when Howard named a lecture hall in his honor.
William Leo Hansberry was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.