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The wonderful historian Drusilla Dunjee Houston

Herb Boyd | 3/20/2014, 12:16 p.m.
Drusilla Dunjee Houston

“Books of reference tell us that men do not know the origination of civilization,” wrote historian and journalist Drusilla Dunjee Houston in the opening chapter of her book “Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire.” She was commenting on the expropriation of African history by Western scholars and their tendency to see the Greeks as the fountainhead of civilization.

This Week in Black History

March 17, 1919: Singer-pianist Nat “King” Cole is born in Montgomery, Ala.

March 18, 1877: The great statesman Frederick Douglass was appointed marshal of the District of Columbia.

March 19, 1968: Students at Howard University take over the campus and demand Black studies be added to the core curriculum.

In her designation that “men do not know,” she may have been slyly noting the absence of women in the debate about ancient history, particularly as it pertained to Egypt and Ethiopia. Houston stands alone as the sole woman of African-American descent counted among the historians, anthropologists and scientists who have probed the African past. And thanks to the tireless research and acclamation of Dr. Peggy Brooks Bertram, the founder the Uncrowned Queens Institute for Research and Education on Women, students of Black history have gained a better understanding of Houston’s incomparable contributions.

Brooks-Bertram, in her introduction to her edited version of Houston’s book, cites Dr. Anderson Thompson of Chicago as responsible for sparking her curiosity about her. During libations at a conference, he called out her name, and that set Brooks-Bertram on a lifelong pursuit of Houston, a quest that was further encouraged by Dr. John Henrik Clarke.

“It seemed strange to hear the name of a virtually unknown African-American woman associated with such noted historical figures as Martin Delaney, Chancellor Williams, Edward Wilmot Blyden, Marcus Garvey, Henry McNeal Turner, Arthur A. Schomburg, John G. Jackson, Joel A. Rogers, St. Clair Drake, Cheikh Anta Diop and others.”

Strange, indeed, and even stranger when you consider that in many respects, certainly as it pertains to Ethiopia, Houston outstripped all of these notable scholars. And it is rather ironic that she may have even embarked on her studies before the eminent William Leo Hansberry, who many consider the dean of Ethiopian scholarship in the West. Hansberry notes in his book “The Pillars in Ethiopian History” that it was during the summer of 1916 that he read W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Negro” and received the inspiration to pursue the subject of Ethiopian history and culture. For a time, a similar story was circulated about Houston’s beginnings on the subject, but Brooks-Bertram clarified this notion.

As Brooks-Bertram notes it was Du Bois’ limitations on the subject that set Houston in motion to recover that portion of the African past. “In fact,” Brooks-Bertram observed, “she had actually completed three volumes in the collection by 1919, long before she sent a published copy of the first volume to Du Bois asking for a review in the The Crisis.”

So who was this pioneering scholar? Again, we return to Brooks-Bertram, who provides a lengthy biography of Houston in her abovementioned book on “Wonderful Ethiopians, Volume II.” Born Drusilla Dunjee on Jan. or June 20, 1876 (depending on the source), on the campus of Storer College, a freedmen school located at Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., where John Brown and his men tried to take control of the arsenal and arm the slaves in a planned revolt. Trained as a classical pianist and earning more than $3,000 a concert, Houston nonetheless forsook this promising career and began teaching elementary school in Oklahoma City, where the family had settled. She was one of 10 children, with only five of them living to adulthood.