This Day in Jewish History

1963: The White Jewish Father of African Studies Dies

Melville Herskovits didn’t buy the anthropomorphic theories that blacks were inferior. He went to Africa – and disproved the tenet that black Americans had no cultural past.

Facebook / Melville J. Herskovits

On February 25, 1963, Melville Herskovits, the white, Jewish anthropologist who was the father of African studies in the U.S., died at the age of 67.

A longtime professor at Northwestern University, outside Chicago, Herskovits was not only among the first among American academics to study the cultures of Africa – in particular of the West African countries that supplied so many slaves for the New World. He also pioneered a then-novel, if not revolutionary, approach to the links between the culture of American blacks and that of their ancestors in Africa.

Melville Jean Herskovits was born on September 10, 1895, in Bellefontaine, Ohio. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Central Europe, his father, Herman Herskovits, from Hungary, his mother, the former Henrietta Hart, from Germany.

When Melville was 10, the family moved to El Paso, Texas, and then, after his mother’s death, to Erie, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Erie High School in 1912.

Herskovits began college at the University of Cincinnati, and simultaneously enrolled for rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College.

But after the U.S. became involved in World War I, he stopped his studies to enlist in the army’s medical corps and headed off to Europe. On his return, Herskovits transferred to the University of Chicago, from which he graduated with a history degree in 1920.

Happily parted from God

His daughter, Jean Herskovits Corry, was interviewed in a 2010 film about her father, “Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness.” She said he explained his decision not to return to rabbinical school by saying, a bit vaguely, that he and God had discussed the nature of faith, and when they couldn’t come to an agreement, had decided to go their separate ways. The parting, her father said, left him and God both very happy.

Herskovits undertook graduate studies at Columbia University, where he did his master’s and Ph.D. under the guidance of Franz Boas, then the country’s most distinguished anthropologist. (In 1953, Herskovits would write a biography of Boas.)

His doctoral thesis, published as a book in 1926, was on “The Cattle Complex in East Africa,” and concerned power and authority in Africa.

Before getting his first regular academic appointment, at Northwestern in 1927, Herskovits took work doing anthropometric studies of African Americans. It was a time when biological theories still prevailed in anthropology, informed by an underlying belief that blacks were genetically inferior.

Herskovits didn’t buy it, and used the research money available, from the National Research Council, to conduct studies that led him to conclude that American blacks had a diverse enough racial heritage – i.e., enough mixed blood – that genetics couldn’t serve as the basis for any broad generalizations about them.

The myth of the Negro disconnect from Africa

More important, Herskovits went to Africa and studied the lives, beliefs and economics of the tribes he observed. He found cultural elements – he called them “Africanisms” – that had survived in contemporary black society in the U.S.

His most noted book, “The Myth of the Negro Past,” from 1942 put paid to the idea, then prevalent, that American blacks lost all connection with their cultural past during the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas.

Herskovits, who was among the first Jewish faculty members at Northwestern, founded the university’s anthropology department, and established a library of African studies there that remains the world’s largest. He also organized the African Studies Association.

In the mid-20th century, Herskovits was the go-to address on African studies. He urged his students to avoid allowing politics to affect their work, but that may not have been a realistic goal even then.

He himself was a supporter of independence for the African colonies still under European control, and his work did a lot to advance the cause of equality for African Americans, if only by changing the wider public’s understanding of their history and culture.

Herskovits was married from 1924 until his death to the former Frances Shapiro, herself the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. She too was an anthropologist, and she was his partner on many of his research projects.