Willis Nathaniel Huggins (1886-1941): Historian, Activist, and Community Mentor

Article excerpt


On Tuesday, July 15, 1941, New York City detectives supervised the recovery of a male body from the Hudson River near 72nd Street. After contacting the Missing Persons Bureau, it was determined that this unfortunate person was Dr. Willis Nathaniel Huggins. His sister, Mrs. Roberta Goldsby and his wife, Rosetta, identified the body at the city morgue on Wednesday morning. Huggins had been missing since December 23rd and last seen by friends and relatives at his home located at 1890 Seventh Avenue. He was reported to have $500 in his wallet at this time. This was not unusual, since Huggins owned the Blyden Bookstore and had been associated with several independent Black publications. The only clues to his whereabouts was an overcoat that had been found on the George Washington Bridge and a letter that Huggins sent to his wife stating that "Something is going to happen." At the time of his disappearance, Huggins was teaching history and economics at Bushwick High School in Brooklyn and serving as Assistant Principal at Harlem's Union High School in the evening. (1)

The Harlem community was both shocked and saddened to hear confirmation of Huggins's death. In the past six and half months, his disappearance had been a hotly debated mystery. The press, his family, and his lawyer all publicly declared that Huggins had committed suicide. His students at the Blyden Society and the street community believed that Huggins had met with foul play from a gangster element due to unpaid business loans. The competing versions of his death have not been reconciled nor does firm documentation exist to disprove either version. Huggins had been associated with the Garvey movement since 1919 and recognized as a dedicated and talented "Race Man" by Harlem's leadership for more than two decades. In addition, he was the former president of the New York branch of the Association for the Study for New York Life and History; the executive secretary for the Friends of Ethiopia In America (FEA); a tireless advocate for including African and African American history in public school curriculums; and an articulate voice for the Black history movement. In addition, he had a network of national and international friends and contacts that included: J. A. Rogers, Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Arthur A. Schomburg, Charles S. Johnson, Claude McKay; Jesse E. Moorland, Amy Jacques Garvey, Dantes Bellegarde (the Haitian Ambassador to the United States), President Stenio Vincent of Haiti; Ras Desta Damtew of Ethiopia, and scores of former students in West Africa, Ethiopia, and London. On the community level, his leadership of the Blyden Society facilitated the education of such noted self-trained historians as John Henrik Clarke and John G. Jackson. These accomplishments and his mentorship of a generation of young self-trained Black historians have sadly been neglected and forgotten by contemporary scholars of the African American experience. This paper will rescue and briefly discuss the life and contributions of this Black activist intellectual from his family roots in Alabama to his mysterious death in the early 1940s. (2)


Willis Nathaniel Huggins was born February 7, 1886, in Selma, Alabama. His father, Reverend A. Z. Huggins, was a respected Baptist minister. As a youth, Huggins received his first education at the Selma Training School. The Huggins family then joined the wave of Black migrants to the North and moved to Washington, D.C. Huggins, an excellent student, attended Armstrong High School for colored youth. During his senior year he won a scholarship to Columbia University. His outstanding academic record and probably one of the Black faculty members who graduated from Columbia facilitated this connection. The M Street School, later renamed Dunbar High School and Armstrong's sister institution, had a great track record of placing its top students in Ivy League and other prominent private white schools. …


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