“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.
Find out more: There are several very informative websites with lengthy profiles on Houston, but, as we always remind our readers, the best source of information on persons is to research their books and articles, and she left an impressive volume of literature, including her book “Wonderful Ethiopians,” which is the best place to start.
Discussion: One of the most fascinating things about Houston is her pursuit of women in antiquity. We may want to find out exactly what is meant by antiquity and the actual timeframe.
Place in context: Houston was born in the late 19th century and died in the middle of 20th century, but her main work was rediscovered only a generation ago. Her prominence, given the digital age, may expand and reach a wider audience, particularly those interested in Ethiopian history and culture.
Her brother Roscoe became a famous publisher of the Black Dispatch and soon Houston was an editor at the paper and her column won her an appreciable audience. An example of her forthright voice for women’s rights is clearly indicated in the poem accompanying her picture on this page.
She was 22 when she eloped and married Price Houston, a man twice her age. They took up residence in McAlester, Okla., and she soon opened a seminary for girls, a venture, Brooks-Bertram said, that lasted about 12 years. Eventually however, she began devoting most of her time to the paper and the popularity of her “race work” was the paper’s most important forum.
While she was a versatile writer, capable of discussing a number of significant issues, all of her articles focused on uplifting her people. With that aim in mind, she often elaborated on practically every topic of interest to her readers, advising them on health, economics, child care, nutrition, cleanliness, education, religion and how to exercise the best etiquette.
It was from her ever widening fields of endeavor—particularly lynching, Jim Crow laws and violence against women—that she began to seek ways to challenge some of the longstanding practices of the suppression of women. One way, she decided, was to research the role of Black women in antiquity.
By stressing the matrilineal line of descent—that is, one’s ancestry based on the mother rather than the father—Houston believed she could counter some of the male domination prevalent among such thinkers as Du Bois and others, she contended. Thus began her work on “Wonderful Ethiopians,” an enterprise she started as early as 1906.
Among the themes that ran through most of her columns were Black Nationalism, self-help and separation. Many of her ideas on racial vindication—the idea of elevating Blacks from the swamp of inferiority and triumph—were acquired from her father, but after a while, she put her own unique stamp on them, and this placed her right along with some of the “race women” of her generation, including Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells and Pauline Hopkins.
Her decision to study the Cushitic people—the Black people found in the earliest Biblical texts—was her way of acquiring authenticity and credibility among her colleagues. Unfortunately, given the need to keep the paper solvent, Houston could not commit herself exclusively to the betterment of the race. She also took the responsibility of collecting the subscription fees. There was also difficulty in writing in isolation from the repositories and libraries on the East Coast. Add to this the challenge of promotion and marketing the book, and it’s easy to understand the time it took to get the reviews necessary to improve sales.
Reviews of the book were mainly favorable, among them J.A. Rogers and Arthur Schomburg, but many took her to task for the absence of footnotes and the failure to document some of her conclusions. Even so, there was no comment from Du Bois, a man she deemed her “mentor” and the most important scholar of the day. But Du Bois never wrote a review of her book, nor did he address her plea for protection from the possible dangers of the Ku Klux Klan. Du Bois’ reluctance to review her book may have stemmed from reading a negative attack on him by Houston.
Further rejection came from Carter G. Woodson, the creator of Negro History Week. Her application to join his organization was rejected. The only solace from these painful setbacks from the eminent scholars was to have her book accepted in the Oklahoma school system, at least accepted for use in the “Negro schools.”
Houston may have been ignored by scholars of her generation, but her book and her other scholarship have been rescued from obscurity by a number of legendary and contemporary Afrocentric teachers, thinkers, bookstore owners and publishers, including James Spady, Runoko Rashidi, Lewis Michaux and Paul Coates.
“In 1988,” Bertram wrote, “members of the Association of Black Women Historians paid tribute to Dunjee Houston with the creation of the Drusilla Dunjee Houston Award for Outstanding Graduate Students.” In 2004, Houston was included in the “Encyclopedia of Black Women.” Brooks-Bertram wrote the brief bio-sketch of her heroine.
Price Houston died in 1931. He and Dunjee Houston had one surviving child, Florence. Dunjee Houston died on Feb. 8, 1941, in Phoenix, Ariz. Engraved on her gravestone is “To Die is to Gain.”