The Elder Scholars were a group of academicians, writers, activists, and lay historians who lived primarily on the East Coast of the United States during the 20th century. They wrote and debated the ideas of African cultures and civilization in many forums. Some of the most prolific and best known of these scholars were Chancellor Williams, John Henrik Clarke, Edward V. Scobie, and Yosef ben-Johannan. They became legends in the African American communities of the East Coast largely because of their activist stance on political and intellectual issues. Collectively, their lives were devoted to the quest for the truth about the history of African people, and they made an important contribution to this quest by serving as sources for the first generation of Black Studies scholars.
Chancellor Williams (1902–1996), the grandson of slaves, was born in Bennetsville, South Carolina. He earned his master's degree from Howard University and doctoral degree from American University. He was an astute educator and prolific writer. His early questions were social and historical interrogations derived from his observations of the social relations in his community. He frequently questioned the disparity in opportunity between blacks and whites. This became his most constant compass in the intellectual work that he was to do during his lifetime. Williams believed that it was impossible for whites to dominate African people for so long and with such ferocity unless there was something in whites or in blacks that made these cruelties possible. He wanted to search for the answer to what that something was.
In his search for the truth about the black race, Williams conducted field studies in African history in Ghana, West Africa, with the main objective of determining the independent achievements of the African race and the nature of black civilization before either Asian or European influence penetrated the continent. His study spanned over 10 years, during which time he surveyed 26 countries and centered on 105 traditional African culture language groups.
Chancellor Williams succeeded Leo William Hansberry, his former professor and mentor at Howard University, and became the History Department's specialist in African History. He held the position until his retirement in 1972. In recognition of his work as a historian, and for his contributions to African education and black history during the critical transitional era when colonies became independent nations, Howard University's History Club changed its name to the Chancellor Williams Historical Society.
The empirical research for Williams's doctoral dissertation, an unusual portrayal of the life of black storefront churches as viewed from inside, was published as his first novel, Have You Been to the River? He authored the essay “And If I Were White” and eight books, among them The Rebirth of African Civilization, The Raven, The Second Agreement with Hell, and The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race From 4500 B. C. to 2000 A. D. The Destruction of Black Civilization, which challenged Eurocentric views of African history, offered theories on black American empowerment based on African models, and proposed a master plan for black unification and development. The work spans 6,000 years of African history, revealing common social patterns within the continent's cultures. The Destruction of Black Civilization continues to be a top seller in the black community.
Edward v. Scobie
Edward V. Scobie (1918–1996) was born on the island of Dominica, where he excelled as a student and an athlete. He was the island's top swimmer and table tennis player. In 1941, he joined the British Royal Air Force, and as a navigator in a bomber command he completed many missions over Germany during World War II. He was still enlisted when he returned to England in 1945, which was the site of the Fifth Pan African Congress. By attending sessions at this meeting, Scobie met and talked with some of the notable black scholars and African patriots in attendance: Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, W. E. B. Du Bois, George Padmore, and C. L. R. James. The content of these sessions was the compelling force that shaped Scobie's worldview and his subsequent academic and literary careers.
Returning to Dominica after the war, Scobie became editor for the Dominican Herald, published two works, Flamingo and Tropic, and served two terms as mayor of Roseau, the capital of Dominica. He was also one of the founding members and vice president of the Dominican Freedom Party. Scobie moved to the United States to take an appointment as Associate Professor at Livingston College. Later, positions at Rutgers and Princeton followed. He was Professor Emeritus in the Department of Black Studies of the City University of New York for 25 years. His were the largest and most popular classes in the department.
Scobie was the author of Global Afrikan Presence (1994); however, it was his stellar work Black Britannia (1972) that brought him international acclaim. The book provides a broad but comprehensive outline of the role of blacks in the Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British worlds, and it remains an important history of blacks in the British Isles. Scobie was considered the best specialist on the life of Africans, particularly those from the Caribbean in Britain. He was the dean of the subject of blacks in Britain.
John Henrik Clarke
John Henrik Clarke (1915–1998), the grandson of slaves and son of sharecroppers, was born John Henry Clark in Union Springs, Alabama. He matured to manhood in Columbus, Georgia, where black boys were not allowed to imagine themselves as conduits of social and political change. Beginning in his early youth, Clarke began to search for African people in the Bible because he saw no image of “his people” in God's book. He studied the history of the world, and the history of African people in particular, and queried the color of Christ and the angels, as well as the absence of blacks in pages of his Sunday school lessons.
Clarke was an ardent student, but he couldn't spend much time on formal education because he was often taken out to work to help supplement his father's meager income. Nevertheless, the foundation for his early education was the public school libraries in Columbus, Georgia, where he borrowed books by signing his employer's name to the notes he composed. He continued to borrow five books a week through the method he devised until he left Columbus at the age of 18. Although Clarke left school in the seventh grade, he remained an avid reader throughout his life. A reading of Arthur Schomburg's essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past” made him determined to go to New York City to meet Schomburg and learn the true history of African people. When Clarke was 18, he and a friend left Georgia by freight train headed for the North.
Clarke arrived in New York in 1933, with the ambition of pursuing a career as a writer. On his arrival he decided to take the necessary steps to build a life of scholarship and activism in New York. He traveled to the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library (now The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) and introduced himself to Arthur Schomburg. Clarke demanded to learn the history of African people within the hour—Schomburg's lunch hour. Schomburg directed him to first read the history of Europe to understand how black history was stolen. From that first meeting they became close friends, with Schomburg mentoring Clarke and suggesting specific books on world history for him to read. The sudden death of Schomburg in 1937 was a devastating blow to Clarke. However, he was surrounded by many of the literary giants of the time, and he proceeded to join the Harlem History Club, to become a member of the Harlem History Workshop, and to study with Leo William Hansberry, John Killens, Williams N. Huggins, and John Jackson. They in turn mentored him in a similar manner to Arthur Schomburg, and these men became the major forces that helped to shape the life of John Henrik Clarke. He changed his name from Henry to Henrik because he admired the Scandinavian rebel playwright Henrik Ibsen, who addressed social issues in his work, and he added the letter “e” to Clark.
A self-proclaimed nationalist and pan-Africanist, Clarke was a largely self-taught historian who took undergraduate classes in history and world literature at New York and Columbia Universities and the New School for Social Research. His long search for the true history of African people took him to libraries, museums, and archives in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, and Latin America.
Clarke was also a writer, with a book of poetry, Rhyme and Rebellion (1948), to his credit, as well as over 50 short stories that were published in the United States and abroad. His best-known short story, “The Boy Who Painted Christ Black,” has been translated into more than a dozen languages. His publications in the form of edited books, major essays, and book introductions are many. Among the major texts by Clarke used in the disciplines of history and African American Studies at colleges and universities are Africa, Lost and Found with Richard Moore and Keith Baird, Africans at the Crossroads: Notes on an African World Revolution, Introduction to African Civilizations with introduction by John G. Jackson, Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa, and Malcolm X: The Man and His Time. His articles and conference papers on African and African American history and culture have been published in leading journals throughout the world. In 1986 the Cornell University Library was renamed the John Henrik Clarke Africana Studies Library, and in 1993 Clark University Woodruff Library Center in Atlanta, to which he donated thousands of books, dedicated a wing of the library in his honor. His lesson plans and course outlines, known for their thoroughness and meticulous structure, were donated to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Clarke was the recipient of honorary degrees from the University of Denver, the University of the District of Columbia, and the Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York (which was awarded posthumously). However, in 1995 he completed his dissertation and earned a doctoral degree from Pacific Western University in California. He was a professor in Cornell University's Africana Studies and Research Center and for 20 years in the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York, from which he retired in 1985 with the distinguished title of Professor Emeritus.
Clarke shared his life with many luminary world figures: Kwame Nkrumah, Paul Robeson, Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Wright, Julian Mayfield, John G. Jackson, Cheikh Anta Diop, John O. Killens, Hoyt Fuller, Chancellor Williams, Drucella Dundee Houston, Marcus Garvey, Jr., Leonard Jeffries, and Yosef ben-Johannan, whom he embraced as his brother. Clarke will be remembered for his many contributions to society and to his people, as well as for saying, “History is not everything, it is the starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are, what they are, but more importantly, what they must be.”
Yosef ben-Jochannan (1918–present), a noted scholar and lecturer, is affectionately called “Dr. Ben.” He was born in Ethiopia and grew up in the Caribbean, and traveled extensively with his parents through Cuba, Puerto Rico, and South America. He attended the University of Puerto Rico and then Cambridge, initially with the intention of becoming a civil engineer. Instead, he studied law before deciding on a career in cultural anthropology. Ben-Jochannon migrated to the United States in 1945, where he continues to maintain a home in Harlem.
Ben-Jochannon has an exemplary command of ancient and contemporary history and is respected for his meticulous research into the roots of African history. For decades, his argument has been that the educational system has attempted to perpetuate the myths that Europeans are the sole contributors to civilization and that Egypt was originally European. He has conducted research in Africa, India, and Europe, and he was a UNESCO specialist in cultural anthropology of East Africa. Ben-Jochannon has written many books about the black presence in Egypt, among which are voluminous history books. The most well known of his books are Africa: Mother of Western Civilization and Black Man of the Nile and His Family, which was originally published in 1972 and rereleased in 1989.
Ben-Jochannon uses his work to challenge and expose Europeanized African history and to reveal the distortions made concerning African contributors to world civilization. He work has been called a corrective lesson in “ourstory.” Ben-Jochannon is a retired Adjunct Professor of History and Egyptology at Cornell University's Africana Studies Research Center and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Languages, Al Azhar University, Egypt. He has also taught at Malcolm-King College, Marymount College, Temple University, and Hunter College of the City University of New York. He is multilingual and speaks Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Agu (an ancient Ethiopian language), Arabic, and Greek and has a reading knowledge of Italian and classical Arabic.
The Elder Scholars are often acclaimed as the generation that laid the foundation for the more scientific Afrocentric work that was done by the scholars of the 1980s and 1990s.
- Elder Scholars
- African people
- Destruction of Black Civilization
- John Henrik Clarke
- African American history
- Adams, Barbara E. (2000). John Henrik Clarke: Master Teacher. Chicago: A&B Press. This is the first full-length treatment of the life of John Henrik Clarke, and it places Clarke in historical perspective.
- ben-Jochannan, Yosef, and Clarke, John Henrik. (1991). From the Nile Valley to the New World, Science, Invention & Technology: New Dimensions in African History. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. This is a portrait of African history from the combined minds of two of the Elder Scholars.
- Boyd, Herb.Scobie Dies at 78. Amsterdam Newsp. 1. (1996, November 23). This article on the life of Edward Scobie is the portrayal of a man who was a giant among African intellectuals.
- Clarke, John Henrik. (1994). My Life in Search of Africa. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Americana Studies and Research Center. This is Clarke's memoir of his search for Africa. He reminisces on his life, career, obstacles, and discoveries, and he muses about what still remains to be done.
- Toure, Yemi.Elder Statesmen. Los Angeles Timesp. 23. (1991, March 3). This a fine article on the role of the elder statespersons of African American history.