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Herskovits, Melville J. (Melville Jean), 1895-1963



Anthropologist Melville Jean Herskovits was born in Bellefontaine, Ohio, on September 10, 1895. His father, Herman Herskovits, a clothing merchant, had come to the United States from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now a part of Czechoslovakia) in 1872; his mother, the former Henrietta Hart, emigrated from Germany around 1880. Because of Mrs. Herskovits' poor health, the family left Ohio for El Paso, Texas, about 1905. In 1911 after his mother's death, Herskovits, with his father and sister, moved again to Erie, Pennsylvania. There he graduated from high school in 1912.

In 1915, Herskovits concurrently entered the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College. His studies, however, were interrupted by World War I. After serving fifteen months in France as a private and private first class in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, he was discharged in 1919. He studied briefly at the University of Poitiers before returning to the United States to enter the University of Chicago, where he received a Ph.B (Bachelor of Philosophy) degree in history in 1920.

Herskovits turned to the study of anthropology in 1920, beginning graduate work at Columbia University under Franz Boas. In 1921, he received his A.M. and began his teaching career as an assistant at Columbia. He continued to work with Boas, receiving his Ph.D. in 1923 with a dissertation entitled The Cattle Complex in East Africa.

New York City, and especially Columbia, was an important center of anthropological activity in the 1920's, and Herskovits not only encountered ideas and disciplines that shaped his career, but also made lifelong friends. In addition to his work with Boas, Herskovits studied at the New School for Social Research with A. A. Goldenweiser and Thorstein Veblen. Among his colleagues and fellow students were Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Elsie Clews Parsons, A. I. Hallowell, Malcolm Willey, and his future wife, Frances Shapiro, whom he married in Paris on July 12, 1924.

In 1923, Herskovits was named a fellow of the National Research Council Board of Biological Sciences, which enabled him to pursue three years of research into the physical anthropology of the American Negro. During the same period, he lectured at Columbia from 1924 until 1927, and, in 1925, served as an assistant professor of anthropology at Howard University. At Howard, as at Columbia, Herskovits became acquainted with a number of important individuals who became his friends and professional associates, including Alain Locke, E. Franklin Frazier, Ralph Bunche, Sterling Brown, and Charles H. Thompson.

Herskovits moved to Northwestern in 1927 as assistant professor of sociology, the only anthropologist in the department. He became an associate professor in 1931, a full professor in 1935, and presided over the creation of the department of anthropology to become its chairman in 1938. In 1961, Northwestern appointed Herskovits to the Chair of African Studies, the first such position in the United States.

Herskovits' long career as an anthropologist was punctuated and advanced by a series of field trips to study various aspects of Negro civilization. The first of these came in 1928 when, accompanied by Frances Herskovits and Morton Kahn, he did ethnographic field work among the Bush Negroes of Suriname (Dutch Guiana). The expedition was repeated in 1929. This work resulted in two books authored jointly with Frances Herskovits, Suriname Folk-lore and Rebel Destiny, as well as a number of articles.

Herskovits' studies of the Negro in the New World continued with trips to Haiti (1934), Trinidad (1939), and Brazil (1942). The most important works based on these experiences are Life in a Haitian Valley and Trinidad Village.

Although much of Herskovits' early work with New World cultures focused on the survival of African culture traits, he first studied an African culture in 1931. The Herskovits' expedition to West Africa was based in Dahomey, with additional work carried out in the Gold Coast and Nigeria. These studies resulted in a number of publications, principally An Outline of Dahomean Religious Belief and Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom.

During the middle period of his career, Herskovits' publishing efforts included not only ethnological studies based on field experience, but also a few influential general works. As one of twenty collaborators with Gunnar Myrdal in the landmark Carnegie Corporation study of the Negro in the United States, Herskovits produced The Myth of the Negro Past, in which he exploded pervasive racial myths by tracing American Negro culture to its roots in West Africa. Equally important, though perhaps less timely, were two other works: The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples, a general survey of primitive economics, and Man and His Works, a survey of cultural anthropology, both descriptive and theoretical, that has often been used as a text.

Herskovits' anthropological work was partially interrupted during World War II, when he used his skills in government service. In addition to acting as chief consultant to the Board of Economic Warfare, he was a member of the Council on Human Relations of the Forestry Service of the Department of Agriculture, and of the advisory committee on music of the State Department's Division of Cultural Cooperation.

After the war Herskovits again turned his full attention to Africa. One immediate result of the war in America was a heightened awareness of the importance of international communication; this led several scholarly organizations, among them the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council, to investigate the possibilities of establishing area studies programs. In 1948, with the support of a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, Herskovits organized the courses with African content that Northwestern had offered since the 1930's into the nation's first interdisciplinary Program of African Studies. Through this program, he directed the field research of numerous graduate students who matured into the second generation of American Africanists.

Additional study of his own followed as well; Herskovits returned to Africa for field work in 1953, 1954, 1955, 1957, and 1962. In 1957-1958 he presided over the founding of the African Studies Association. A report on U.S. foreign policy toward Africa that he prepared for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1960 played a major role in the formulation of subsequent relations between the two continents. Three of Herskovits' last books, Continuity and Change in African Cultures (a collection of articles by Herskovits' students, edited and introduced by Herskovits and William Bascom), Economic Transition in Africa (a collection of conference papers edited, introduced, and summarized by Herskovits and Mitchell Harwitz and published after Herskovits' death), and The Human Factor in Changing Africa, reflect both the rapid development of Africa's place in the world and the increased academic interest in African studies.

Throughout his career, Herskovits was very active in professional organizations, and the list of his awards and honors is long. He contributed summary articles on the state of anthropology to various publications, edited The American Anthropologist from 1949 through 1952, and served as editor of the International Directory of Anthropologists in 1950. In addition to his presidency of the African Studies Association in 1957-1958, he was president of the American Folklore Society (1945), vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1934), a member of the executive board of the American Anthropological Association (1947), and a member of the permanent council of the International Anthropology Congress. He was a pivotal figure in the organization of the First International Congress of Africanists, held in Ghana in 1962. He was a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, a Viking Fund Medalist, an honorary fellow of both the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and the Royal Netherlands Geographical Society, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and Sigma Xi. He was decorated by the governments of the Netherlands and Haiti, and throughout his career, he served on countless professional committees.

Melville Herskovits died in Evanston, Illinois, on February 25, 1963. His wife and collaborator, Frances S. Herskovits, died in 1972. Their daughter, Jean Frances (born in 1935), is a historian specializing in Africa.

Found in 5 Collections and/or Records:

Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963) Biographical Materials

Identifier: 35/6/1
Abstract Biographical materials relating to Melville J. Herskovits fill one archival box and include obituaries, news clippings, Northwestern news releases, correspondence pertaining to university matters, Northwestern faculty information, conference programs, a statement Herskovits gave before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (for the report, drafts, and research materials, see series 35/6, box 99-102), and reprints of Herskovits' scholarly articles. The material is arranged in chronological...
Dates: 1920-1996

Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963) Papers

Identifier: 35/6
Abstract Anthropologist Melville Jean Herskovits presided over the creation of the department of anthropology at Northwestern University in 1938. In 1961, Northwestern appointed Herskovits to the Chair of African Studies, the first such position in the United States. The Melville J. Herskovits Papers document Herskovits' career during a period of very rapid growth of both anthropology and African studies. The bulk of the collection consists of professional correspondence and manuscripts of...
Dates: 1906-1963

David Jolly Papers

Identifier: 35/20

Melville Herskovits Papers

 Unprocessed Material — Multiple Containers
Identifier: 88-218-35-ADDITION

Program of African Studies Records

Identifier: 35/13
Abstract Northwestern University's Program of African Studies, founded in 1948, was the first program on Africa in the nation and the first multidisciplinary program at Northwestern. Developed by anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits to train a corps of scholars maintaining African interests across disciplinary lines, the Program grew to include core and associated faculty from such diverse disciplines as African-American studies, art history, history and literature of religions, law, management,...
Dates: 1955-1991

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Collection 4
Unprocessed Material 1
Africa--Study and teaching 2
Africana libraries--Illinois--Evanston 1
Anthropologists 1
Anthropology 1
Benin 1
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Suriname 1
Trinidad 1
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