By Jacqueline A. Rouse
On a blustering morning in January 1979, I was ushered into the office of the Editor of The Journal of Negro History, located in Brawley Hall on the campus of Morehouse College. After greetings, the Editor, Dr. Alton P. Hornsby, Jr. asked why my interest in working as an intern with the Journal and my background in history. I had just returned to Atlanta to begin a doctoral program in Emory University’s American Studies program. After sharing my academic training, teaching experience, and budding research in African American women’s history, Hornsby concluded the visit by promising to follow up. Upon leaving, we encountered Dr. Clarence Bacote, my former professor at Atlanta University, who offered Dr. Hornsby an instant biography of my life as a student. The conversation convinced Dr. Hornsby: I was told to report for work on the first of February. Thus began my twelve years of service to The Journal of Negro History (JNH). Upon completion of the doctorate, I joined the faculty of Morehouse’s history department, with Dr. Hornsby now my departmental chair.
Alton Hornsby, Jr. attended L. J. Price High School in Atlanta, but left at the end of his junior year to enter Morehouse College in 1957. He graduated with honors from Morehouse College in 1961 and received his M.A. in 1962 and in 1969 became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas at Austin. During his graduate student years, Hornsby was awarded fellowships from the University of Texas, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Southern Education Foundation.
While completing his doctoral degree program, Hornsby began his teaching career with a brief tenure at Tuskegee University. In 1968, he returned to his alma mater where he chaired the history department for almost thirty years. Dr. Hornsby edited The Journal of Negro History for twenty-five years; was inducted into Morehouse’s chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society; and in 1996 was named the Fuller E. Callaway Professor of History. In 2010, Professor Hornsby retired from “The House” after forty-two years of service.
One of my intern assignments was typing Dr. Hornsby’s numerous invited speeches, formal lectures, and talks. As I typed, I also assumed editorial privileges; correcting dates, attending to specifics, and correcting names. Noticing the gender bias of most of his talks, I decided to incorporate diversity: I included paragraphs of information on black women’s activism and leadership that were compatible with his central discussions and included debates between well-respected men and women. After some initial reprimanding, he ultimately realized how progressive and inclusive his revised argument sounded. This led to numerous discussions about African American women’s history, for by now I was a graduate student at Emory University exploring the history of southern black women. And I was able to influence Dr. Hornsby in one important area. He offered a course for history majors, entitled “Great Men in History.” While in a summer internship at the Anacostia Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, I learned of a black women’s exhibit that included educator and activist Anna Julia Cooper. I secured a biography of Cooper that the Smithsonian Institution had produced and sent it to Dr. Hornsby, suggesting that it was time for a course on “Great Men and Women in History.” After learning more about her, he agreed, but for many years Cooper was the only woman included.
Under Chairman Hornsby’s leadership, the history majors were trained to stand in their truth and authority as they improved the spaces they occupied. Steeped in traditions, doctrines, and strategies associated with a culture of advancement, Prof. Hornsby led his faculty in preparing the “scholar-activist.” Excellence was the expected product. His young men were trained for leadership in their fields and careers they mapped out for themselves, prepared to pursue all possible and probable opportunities. Thus, the faculty members took the young men to conferences across the region and country, exposing them to cutting-edge scholars and their works. Morehouse College and North Carolina Central University often competed for attendance “bragging rights” at the ASALH annual convention. As intern and later Assistant Editor, I was responsible for securing the transportation for the students, overseeing the JNH booth during the convention, and managing the JNH’s annual reception. In later years, the Journal hosted silent auctions, which became successful fundraisers. The receptions and fundraisers were arranged by Dr. Hornsby and the JNH staff and became highly anticipated attractions at the annual meeting.
Dr. Hornsby was an early supporter of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH). Many of the earliest student researchers and scholars of Africana women were members of the JNH’s Editorial Board. For others, the JNH published their first contribution to a peer-reviewed scholarly journal. ABWH members were recruited as external reviewers for manuscript submissions. Founded in 1979, when ABWH searched for a space to host its initial receptions at ASALH conventions, Hornsby offered his suite. Those frugal receptions addressed the objectives of ABWH, while seeking to calm fears and rumors of gender divisions. In memory of his mother, Lillie N. Hornsby, an entrepreneur in Atlanta and a fierce supporter of education, Hornsby asked ABWH to establish a scholarship in her name. The Lillie N. Hornsby Award is given annually to recognize the historical research by female undergraduate history majors. Prof. Hornsby published a number of books, edited volumes, research guides, historical chronologies, and encyclopedia and dictionary entries; and he was the recipient of many fellowships and research grants. In the 1990s the state of Georgia recognized him several times with its Georgia Humanities Awards. In 2012, he received the John Blassingame Award from the Southern Historical Association.
He delivered Emory University’s Grace Towns Lecture in 1990; and in 2011, delivered the distinguished Littlefield Lecture at the University of Texas at Austin. Prof. Hornsby mentored many young and mature scholars. As a young professor at Morehouse, he encouraged my applications for awards designed for faculty at historically black colleges, as well as nationally competitive grants and fellowships.
He instructed me to join the organizations in my discipline and to begin presenting my research at their annual conferences. Later, he, along with Dr. Dorothy C. Yancy and Dr. Marcellus Barksdale, aided my efforts in seeking election to leadership positions in these organizations. As the Editor of the John and Lugenia Burns Hope Papers, Hornsby gave me access prior to their public opening. As his first graduate student, he served on my Ph.D. examination and dissertation committees.
Throughout his career, Prof. Hornsby remained committed to research and publication. Some of his more important works include The Black Almanac: From Involuntary Servitude (1619–1860) to the Age of Disillusionment (1972); Chronology of African American History: Significant Events and People, 1619 to the Present (1991); Milestones in 20th Century African American History (1993); Southerners Too?: Essays on the Black South, 1773–1990 (2004); Dictionary of Twentieth Century Leaders (2005); A Biographical History of African Americans (2005); The Atlanta Urban League, 1920–2000 (2005); with Alexa B. Henderson and winner of the Adele Mellon Prize for distinguished scholarship; Companion to African American History (2008); African Americans in the Post-Emancipation South: The Outsiders’ View (2011); Zell We Hardly Knew Ye: Senator Zell Miller and the Politics of Region, Class, Gender, and Race (2007); From the Grassroots: Profiles of Contemporary Black Leaders, with Angela M. Hornsby (2006); A Short History of Black Atlanta, 1847–1993 (2015); and Black Power in Dixie: The Political History of African Americans in Atlanta (2016).
Prof. Hornsby was a life member of most of the historical organizations and associations. He was dedicated to those historically African American organizations founded during the era of legal segregation, recognizing their significance in promoting scholarship through the Association of Social and Behavioral Scientists, ASALH, and other organizations. He was a member of the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, the Georgia Association of Historians, the State Committee on the Life and History of Black Georgians, and the Southern Conference of African American Studies.
Alton P. Hornsby, Jr., the son of Lillie Newton and Alton Parker Hornsby, Sr. is survived by his wife, Dr. Anne Hornsby, Professor of economics at Spelman College; son, Alton P. Hornsby, III, a patent attorney in Atlanta; and daughter, Dr. Angela Hornsby-Gutting, a practicing historian in Missouri. Dr. Hornsby dedicated his long tenure of service to maintaining the legacy of scholarly excellence he inherited. For that we are truly grateful. We honor his commitment, perseverance, and service.