The blind scholar whose trailblazing work on ancient African civilisations changed the world

October 11, 2019 at 06:00 pm | History

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

October 11, 2019 at 06:00 pm | History

Chancellor Williams. Pic credit: Northeastern University Library

In acknowledging the great historians and scholars of African ancestry who operated in the U.S. and whose Afrocentric work revived the conciseness of Africans on the continent and in the diaspora, Chancellor Williams’ name is well placed.

Williams, born December 22, 1893, was an African-American sociologist, historian and writer. He came to national and international attention when he authored ‘The Destruction of Black Civilization’ book across 1971/1974.

Chancellor had first-hand experience with the unjust system against Blacks in America as his father had been born into slavery and had grown up to gain freedom after the American Civil War. His mother Dorothy Ann Williams had worked as a cook, nurse and evangelist.

Williams, by fifth-grade, was no stranger to racial inequality and cultural struggles, since he was encouraged by a sixth-grade teacher to read and sell the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) ‘The Crisis’ book, as well as, The Norfolk Journal and Guide.

Dr. Chancellor Williams via raceandhistory.com

The Bennettsville, South Carolina native, seeing the poor state of people of his kind, set out to have answers.

He notes: “I wanted to know how you explain this great difference. How is it that we were in such low circumstances as compared to the whites? And when they answered ‘slavery’ as the explanation, then I wanted to know where we came from.”

“Raising more questions as I progressed through school, questions whose answers were even more perplexing. For, having read everything about the African race that I could get my hands on, I knew even before leaving high school that (1) The Land of the Blacks was not only the “cradle of civilization” itself but that the Blacks were once the leading people on earth ; (2) that Egypt once was not only all-black, but the very name “Egypt” was derived from the Blacks ; (3) and that the Blacks were the pioneers in the sciences, medicine, architecture, writing, and were the first builders in stone, etc . The big unanswered question, then, was what had happened? How was this highly advanced” ― Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D.

By 1910, the Williams family had moved to Washington, D.C. Williams eventually graduated from Armstrong Technical High School, however, he soon lost his mother in 1925.

Williams enrolled at Howard University, a historically black college. Over there, he earned an undergraduate degree in Education in 1930, followed by a Master’s in History in 1935.

After completing a doctoral dissertation on the socioeconomic significance of the storefront church movement in the United States since 1920, he was awarded a Ph.D. in sociology by American University in 1949.

He subsequently went to England as a visiting professor to the universities of Oxford and London in 1953 and 1954. In 1956, he did field research in African history at Ghana’s University College.

At that time, his focus was on African achievements and the many self-ruling civilizations which had arisen and operated on the continent long before the coming of Europeans or East Asians.

His last study, completed in 1964, involved field studies covering 26 nations in West, Central, East and Southern Africa. It also researched some 105 different societies and language groups.

The results are an interpretation of Black History from the conquered as opposed to that of the conqueror. He assessed the factors that lead to the downfall of a people who were once the “Cradle of Civilization.” He explains what happened, how it happened, and most importantly, what can be done about it.

He had a stint at Cheltenham School for Boys in Maryland as Administrative Principal from 1935 before moving to Washington, DC public schools as a teacher.

When World War II arrived, Williams served as section chief of the Census Bureau, a statistician for War Relocation Board, and an economist in Office of Price Administration.

In 1946, he returned to his alma mater, Howard University, as a social science instructor, teaching until 1952. From the 1960s, Williams’ interest in Africa crystalized. He began lecturing and writing about African history focusing on African civilizations before European invasions. In 1966, Williams retired from Howard University.

While white scholars, either ignorantly or mischievously, claimed that Egypt, also called Kemet’s civilization, was by non-Africans, it was Chancellor Williams, one of the earliest Black historians, to assert that Ancient Egypt was predominantly a Black civilization.

Williams gathered material for his most notable book, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race Between 4500 B.C. and 2000 A.D. for 15 years.

It took years for him to print it because he had started going blind in the 1970s. Although the book won an award from the Black Academy of Arts and Letters (BAAL), some scholars in the Afrocentric community took issue with Williams having a white publisher publish the book in the 1970s.

However, the book’s second edition was published in 1987 by Chicago’s Third World Press, a black-owned firm.

Aide; Oggi Ogburn reading to the then blind Chancellor Williams. Photo taken in 1975 by Oggi.

In 1979, the Twenty-first Century Foundation, based in New York, honoured Chancellor Williams with its first Clarence L. Holte International Biennial Prize.

Professor Williams published over 50 articles, professional books, and lectures. Among his publications are The Raven, The Rebirth of African Civilization and his greatest book, The Destruction of Black Civilization.

Williams died of respiratory failure on December 7, 1992, aged 98, at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C.

He had been a resident of the Washington Center for Aging Services for several years. He was survived by his wife of 65 years, Mattie Williams of Washington, and 14 children. He also had 36 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren, and 10 great-great-grandchildren.

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