Drusilla Dunjee Houston (1876-1941)
Drusilla Dunjee was born on January 20, 1876 in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. Her parents were Rev. John William Dunjee and Lydia Taylor Dunjee. Her father was influential in the American Baptist Home Missionary Society and traveled throughout the country establishing Baptist congregations in areas inhabited by poor Black rural dwellers. During these times Houston lived in numerous states on the Eastern Seaboard, in the South, the Northeast and finally the Midwest in Oklahoma. Houston and was one of ten siblings, only five of whom lived to adulthood. The other survivors included Roscoe, Irving, Blanche and Ella. The most famous of her siblings was Roscoe Conkling Dunjee, Editor of the Oklahoma Black Dispatch, an influential mid-western newspaper with national prominence. Houston was Contributing Editor but assumed major responsibility in keeping the paper financially solvent, while at the same time conducting her own research and writing on various historical and social matters.
Like many African American women writers swallowed up and languishing in the historical gap, Houston is one of the most prolific and all but forgotten African American women writers of the 20th century. Considered a “historian without portfolio” and dismissed as a serious historian and writer by leading Black male historians of Post Emancipation and the Harlem Renaissance, e.g., W.E.B. DuBois, Alaine Locke, Carter G. Woodson and others, Houston burst on the historical literary scene in 1926 with Volume I of her magnum opus Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire Book 1: Nations of the Cushite Empire, Marvelous Facts from Authentic Records thought to represent the crowning achievement of Drusilla Dunjee Houston’s literary life. With this work, Houston is remembered as the earliest known and possibly the only African American woman to write a multi-volume study of ancient Africa where she boldly proclaimed in 1926, an African origin of civilization and culture during one of the most turbulent periods for black Americans in American history.
Through this work, Houston left her own mark as a pioneering advocate of the study of Africa, especially ancient African history and is credited with creating a Pan African framework proclaiming the African origin of civilization. Obadeli Williams in a review of Houston’s second book noted that: “the Cushitic background and origin of the ancient Egyptians recorded by Dunjee-Houston has been confirmed by Cheikh Anta Diop’s 12 categories of evidence of their African origins. Fifty years before Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1984) and a generation before George G.M. James Stolen Legacy (1954) while predating Diop’s African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality? (1974) by 40 years; Dunjee-Houston pioneered African-centered historiography. Dunjee-Houston is indeed the foremother of Africana historical writing and research. She sought to burst asunder vestiges of notions of the “Dark Continent” in both academia and among the lay populace. Her second book Wonderful Ethiopians Book II: Origin of Civilization from the Cushites created a wedding between the adherents of the Garvey movement and the Harlem Literary Renaissance.
Books I was only the beginning. Houston often reported that she had written at least six volumes in what she referred to as the Wonderful Ethiopians Series, including Origin of the Aryans, Astounding Lost African Empires, Cushites in Western Europe, Cushites in the Americas and others. Regrettably, all appear lost with the exception of Book II, Origin of Civilization from the Cushites which was recently discovered and published by a long time Houston researcher and scholar, Dr. Peggy Brooks-Bertram. The late Asa G. Hilliard, III in a commentary on Houston’s second, long lost manuscript describes Houston thusly:”When the roll is called of the great Africans who corrected the errors and defamation in the ancient story of African people, the list will include, …Arthur A. Schomburg, John G. Jackson, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan, Theophile Obenga, Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, Dr. Jacob Carruthers, and many others. However, with this and other masterworks, that roll of masters must never be called without the name of one, whose love for her people, and whose model of excellence we now know even better than before, Drusilla Dunjee Houston.”Aside from her writings on ancient African history and later American history, Dunjee Houston was a multi-faceted figure, who, at one time or another during her wide-ranging career was an educator, elegist, racial uplift theorist, institution builder and journalist. Her writings cross multiple literary periods including the race writers, the Black Women’s Era (1890-1900), and the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro era. Still, despite voluminous writings for more than four decades --including editorials, pamphlets, poetry, elegy, screenplays and historical texts—Houston remains one of the most overlooked African American women writers in African American women’s history and is also one of the most important African American women in the American West. Houston was a lover of children and from her early days teaching in the segregated schools of pre-Territorial Oklahoma—barely fifteen years of age--devoted her life to providing the correct historical information on Africa to the black children she regarded as “acres of diamonds.” It was for these children that she began building academic institutions, some privately financed, e.g., the McAlester Seminary, the Sapulpa Training School with the Baptist Convention and others.A search for Houston over decades reveals an extraordinarily private woman who felt compelled to thrust herself into the major social and political dialogues of her era, especially the racial uplift work of the federated women’s clubs. When she began writing, it was clear that Houston was eager to first take her readers “Mountain Stepping,” and then “moleing and mining” in the old dusty books that presented what she believed to be the true history of ancient Africa. She educated hundreds of students throughout her life but was one of her own best students as she was the consummate self-taught student fluent in French, German, Greek and Latin. These skills are especially evident in other writings, particularly her screen play, “The Maddened Mob,” written in elegiac verse in 1915 as a refutation of Birth of a Nation. Arguably, Houston was the very first African American to write a blow by blow refutation of Birth of a Nation, which she hoped to become a “flashing photo play.” Houston was always fearful that her works would be lost and forgotten and that they would never reach the audience she desired, namely the children. To some extent she was correct. On February 11, 1941, Houston died in Arizona after many years of illness from Tuberculosis. True to her deep faith, her grave marker reads: “To Die is to Gain.”
Written exclusively for the Association of Black Women Historians, copyright Dr. Peggy Brooks-Bertram, 2007. Dr. Brooks-Bertram, is the Drusilla Dunjee-Houston Biographer. For additional information about her work link to: www.uncrownedqueens.com
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