A Brief History of the Department of African Studies and  Research at Howard University

by Robert J. Cummings, Ph.D.

The study of Africa, known officially today as African Studies, has been in the curriculum of Howard University since 1923. Professor Melvin Herskovits, the "Father" of African Studies in America, participated in a Howard University sponsored conference on Africa in 1926 about three years before creating at Northwestern University the first formal African Studies program in the United States. Over the years, Howard faculty interest in Africa steadily increased and a major development took place in 1954. Anticipating the independence of African countries from colonial rule, and supported by a grant of $50,000 from the Ford Foundation, faculty members in the College of Liberal Arts, led primarily by W. Leo Hansberry, Rayford Logan, Ralph Bunche, Charles Wesley, Mark H. Watkins, and E. Franklin Frazier, organized themselves and set up an African Studies Committee to coordinate the teaching of courses on Africa. This development set the stage for the organized instruction of subject matter relating to Africa and its peoples. Between 1950 and 1965, the number of students at Howard with serious interests in Africa increased.

The evidence for this transformation is the decision taken by administrative officials to create a Master's (M.A.) degree program in African Studies in 1953. Unfortunately, the intellectual leadership and academic direction shifted from the undergraduate to the graduate level. Based in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and charged with the academic task of teaching African languages and subjects about Africa almost exclusively at the graduate level, the African Studies and Research Program was authorized by the Board of Trustees in 1969 to grant the doctorate (Ph.D.) degree in African Studies. Howard University, for a long time, was the only US institution of higher learning offering a doctoral degree in African Studies. This distinction was challenged in later years somewhat by the efforts of the Afrocentricity school of thought at Temple University. It remains second to none until today, however, and continues to offer an interdisciplinary academic curriculum and professional staff that focuses their primary intellectual and academic attention on Africa and related international developments


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February 2001