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Chancellor James Williams (December 22, 1893 – December 7, 1992) was an African-American sociologist, historian and writer. He is noted for his work on African civilizations prior to encounters with Europeans; his major work is The Destruction of Black Civilization (1971/1974). Williams remains a key figure in the Afrocentric discourse. He is among historians who asserted that Ancient Egypt was predominately a black civilization.
Early life, migration and education
Chancellor Williams was born on December 22, 1893, in Bennettsville, South Carolina, as the last of five children. His father had been born into slavery and had grown up to gain freedom and voting after the American Civil War. His mother Dorothy Ann Williams worked as a cook, nurse, and evangelist. The family suffered after white Democrats regained power in the state legislature in the late 19th century and passed bills disfranchising blacks, as well as imposing racial segregation and white supremacy under Jim Crow. Williams' innate curiosity about racial inequality and cultural struggles, particularly those of African Americans, began as early as his fifth-grade year. Encouraged by a sixth-grade teacher, he sold The Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and The Norfolk Journal and Guide, as well as reading them and using their recommended books to direct his studies.
Years later, he was quoted in an interview as saying:
"I was very sensitive about the position of black people in the town... 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."
As part of the Great Migration out of the rural South, the Williams family moved to Washington, DC in 1910. His father hoped for more opportunity there, especially in education, and Williams graduated from Armstrong Technical High School. Williams' mother died in 1925, leaving his father a widower. All their children were grown by then.
After working for a while, Williams entered college at Howard University, a historically black college. 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.
Williams began his studies abroad in 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, covered 26 countries and more than 100 language groupings.
In 1935 Williams started as Administrative Principal for the Cheltenham School for Boys in Maryland. Four years later he became a teacher in the Washington, DC public schools. With World War II imminent, he entered the civil service system in the Federal government in 1941, serving 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. He transferred to the history department. By the 1960s, he was lecturing and writing about African history from a position of Afrocentrism. He concentrated on African civilizations before the European encounter, and was one of a group of scholars who asserted that Egypt had been a black civilization. He was a scholar at Howard until his retirement in 1966. Afterward he continued his studies and writing.
The Destruction of Black Civilization
In 1971/1974, Williams published his major work, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race Between 4500 B.C. and 2000 A.D., placing it with a white publisher. The following year, the book received an award from the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, founded in New York in 1969. Williams worked for years to expand and revise the book before publishing a second edition. He had it published by Chicago's noted Third World Press, a black-owned firm.
When published in 1987, the second edition of the book received wide critical acclaim from the African-American community. Since that period, there has been a re-evaluation of the his emphasis on Afrocentrism, with some reviewers believing that it weakened his work's value as a historical source. In 1979, the Twenty-first Century Foundation, based in New York, honored Chancellor Williams with its first Clarence L. Holte International Biennial Prize.[page needed]
Williams, aged 98, died of respiratory failure on December 7, 1992 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; 36 grandchildren; 38 great-grandchildren; and 10 great-great-grandchildren.
- The Raven: A Novel of Edgar Allan Poe (1943)
- And If I Were White, Shaw Publications, (1946)
- Have You Been to the River?, Exposition Press, (1952)
- Problems in African History, Pencraft Books, (1964)
- The Rebirth of African Civilization (1961); revised edition, introduction by Baba Zulu, United Brothers and Sisters Communications Systems, (reprint 1993) ISBN 0-88378-129-8
- The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race Between 4500 B.C. and 2000 A.D. (1971/1974/1987) ISBN 0-88378-030-5, scanned version online
- The Second Agreement with Hell, Carlton Press (1979)
Legacy and honors
- 1972, award from Black Academy of Arts and Letters
- 1979, first Clarence L. Holte International Biennial Prize by the Twenty-first Century Foundation
- Chancellor James Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization, Chicago: Third World Press, 1987, p. 14
- "Chancellor Williams, 98, Dies; Professor of African History", The Washington Post, December 12, 1992. p. B04
- The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race Between 4500 B.C. and 2000 A.D. (1974/1987), scanned version online
- Ben Levi Yahweh, "Afrocentrism - A Dying Pseudohistory or an Asset?", African Holocaust Society
- Ivan Van Sertima, Egypt, Child of Africa
- Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.