Melville Jean Herskovits (September 10, 1895 – February 25, 1963) was an American anthropologist who helped establish African and African-American studies in American academia. He is known for exploring the cultural continuity from African cultures as expressed in African-American communities. He worked with his wife Frances (Shapiro) Herskovits, also an anthropologist, in the field in South America, the Caribbean and Africa. They jointly wrote several books and monographs together.
Born to Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in 1895, Herskovits attended local public schools. He served in the United States Army Medical Corps in France during World War I.
Afterward, he went to college, earning a Bachelor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago in 1923. He went to New York City for graduate work, earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University under the guidance of the German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas. This subject was in its early decades of being developed as a formal field of study. His dissertation, titled The Cattle Complex in East Africa, investigated theories of power and authority in Africa as expressed in the ownership and raising of cattle. He studied how some aspects of African culture and traditions were expressed in African American culture in the 1900s.
Among his fellow students were future anthropologists Katherine Dunham, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Elsie Clews Parsons, and Frances Shapiro. He and Shapiro married in Paris in 1924. They later had a daughter, Jean Herskovits, who became a historian as an adult.
In 1927, Herskovits moved to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois as a full-time anthropologist. In 1928 and 1929 he and his wife Frances Herskovits did field work in Suriname, among the Saramaka (then called Bush Negroes) and jointly wrote a book about the people.
In 1934, Herskovits and his wife Frances spent more than three months in the Haitian village of Mirebalais, the findings of which research he published in his 1937 book Life in a Haitian Valley. In its time, this work was considered one of the most accurate depictions of the Haitian practice of Vodou. He meticulously detailed the lives and Vodou practices of Mirebalais residents during his three-month stay. They conducted field work in Benin, Brazil, Haiti, Ghana, Nigeria and Trinidad. In 1938 Herskovits established the new Department of Anthropology at Northwestern.
In 1948, Herskovits founded the first major interdisciplinary American program in African studies at Northwestern University with aid of a three-year, $30,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation, followed by a five-year $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in 1951. The Program of African Studies was the first of its kind at a United States academic institution. The goals of the program were to “produce scholars of competence in their respective subjects, who will focus the resources of their special fields on the study of aspects of African life relevant to their disciplines.”
The Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University, established in 1954, is the largest separate Africana collection in the world. To date, it contains more than 260,000 bound volumes, including 5,000 rare books, more than 3,000 periodicals, journals and newspapers, archival and manuscript collections, 15,000 books in 300 different African languages, extensive collections of maps, posters, videos and photographs, as well as electronic resources. In 1957, Herskovits founded the African Studies Association and was the organization's first president.
Herskovits' book The Myth of the Negro Past is about African cultural influences on African Americans; it rejects the notion that African Americans lost all traces of their past when they were taken from Africa and enslaved in America. He traced numerous elements expressed in the contemporary African-American culture that could be traced to African cultures. Herskovits emphasized race as a sociological concept, not a biological one. He also helped forge the concept of cultural relativism, particularly in his book Man and His Works.
Herskovits debated with sociologist Franklin Frazier on the nature of cultural contact in the Western Hemisphere, specifically with reference to Africans, Europeans, and their descendants. E. Franklin Frazier emphasized how Africans had adapted to their new environment in the Americas. Herskovits was interested in showing elements of continuity from African cultures into the present community.
After World War II, Herskovits publicly advocated independence of African nations from the colonial powers. He strongly criticized American politicians for viewing African nations as objects of Cold War strategy. Frequently called on as an adviser to government, Herksovits served on the Mayor's Committee on Race Relations in Chicago (1945) and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1959–60).