Reclaiming a culture; Visionary: Professor Leon D. Holsey found students eager for African studies at Coppin State College.


The origins of Leon D. Holsey's passion for Africa are not entirely clear. Maybe it came from the stories he heard from his grandmother about her mother's slave-ship trip through the middle passage; perhaps from the uncle who was involved in Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement; or from his own travels in the merchant marine that first landed him on that continent in 1946.

Wherever it came from, the land once disparaged by some as the Dark Continent became a bright light for Holsey, a beacon that shone on generations of students as it guided him through a life of teaching and spiritual exploration.

The 77-year-old Holsey retired this summer after almost four decades at Coppin State College, where he infused Africa into the curriculum of that historically black institution. He will be honored tonight at a dinner at the Forum on Primrose Avenue.

But this gathering of family and friends is not the most important event in Holsey's week because he is also marking the one-year anniversary of the death of his wife, Anna Dugger Holsey. In the Fa-Ifa spiritual system that was so important to both Holseys, that is an important date -- when the restless spirit makes it final journey to the other side.

"There is no death in Africa, only separation," Holsey says. "I just miss her so."

In a back room of Holsey's home in Northwood is an altar to his wife who was 61 when breast cancer claimed her. They had been married 10 years, a second marriage for both, drawn together by their mutual love of Africa.

Her smiling face overlooks the altar from between carved African figures. Bowls of fruit are in front. There are pictures of her Christian burial in her native St. Louis, but nearby are photographs of her other burial in the West African country of Benin.

"I took her essence to Africa," he says of the trip he made after her funeral in St. Louis. "Clippings from her hair and fingernails. This is the essence to Africans. If you ever go to Egypt, you see the hair that was in the tombs there."

In Benin, a wooden effigy of his wife was carved, wrapped in a funeral shroud and carried to the grave site. "They treated it just like the body," Holsey says.

The effigy was placed in a grave along with a picture and the hair and nails. A goat and chicken were sacrificed, their blood flowing over the grave's contents. Dressed in white garments given to him by Benin spiritual leaders, Holsey helped fill in the grave.

He had brought Anna -- whose African name was Iya Lissajee Akbusa -- home.

Home for Holsey has long been Baltimore. Born in South Carolina, he arrived here as an infant and grew up in the Depression days of Jim Crow segregation.

"As fascinating as it is when Dr. Holsey talks about Africa, as a sociologist, I'm even more fascinated when he talks about Baltimore," says John Hudgins, chairman of Coppin State's Social Sciences Department. "He tells stories of [W.E.B.] Du Bois coming through town, Thurgood Marshall living up the street."

Holsey says his father worked as a caulker in the shipyards. "He never made much money, but we always had food on the table," he says.

He tells of the shacks of the homeless in Lafayette Square and Harlem Square, lean-tos in Druid Hill Park. "That was hard times," he says.

He also remembers that anyone who came to his family's house looking for food got a seat at the table and good meal. "They were treated with respect," he says. "It didn't matter if they were black or white."

Holsey went to Douglass High School, but found the attitude there elitist. He dropped out and went to work in the shipyards, but his father insisted he continue his education at night in a program then offered by the city schools for adults.

"It was the best thing my father ever made me do," Holsey says. "Those adults became my mentors. They taught me so much about life I could never have gotten in the academic world."

Holsey went to sea in the merchant marine, serving on ships throughout World War II. Years before the armed forces were integrated, Holsey says, all races were treated equally on these ships.

"In training, we lived together, ate together, slept together, and, as some would say, 'made the room smell funky' together. There were no doors on those stalls. We knew all about each other," he says. "When we got out on those ships, our lives depended on each other."

As it taught him the lessons of universal brotherhood, the merchant marine also took him to Africa. He got his first glimpse of the continent in 1946 on a stopover in Egypt while taking relief supplies to India.

He has traveled to Africa perhaps 40 times since, on vacations, for research, taking tour groups, studying spiritual systems, and making the trip to bury his wife. He has been given many African names -- Azlessi Akozno Shemu-Heru Kawaba Akodeli Kwabena -- names from a different countries, and collected a houseful of carvings, paintings and photographs.

After World War II, Holsey knew what he wanted to do. "I wanted to go back and get my formal education. I wanted to be a teacher."

With G.I. Bill benefits denied to merchant mariners, Holsey worked on ships in the summer while attending Lincoln University and then-Morgan State College, where he graduated in 1950 with a degree in political science and economics.

He worked at Carver Vocational-Technical School, while continuing his studies. Holsey earned a master's degree from New York University, a doctorate in education from California Coast University and took courses at American University, Howard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Maryland, College Park, specializing in the politics and economics of African countries.

In the 1960s, Holsey took a leave from the city schools to work for a War on Poverty program that took him across the United States. He saw poverty in Appalachia, on Indian reservations, in inner cities. But he also saw the diversity of the country.

"It was wonderful working with all those ethnic groups," he says. "I never really understood the whole melting pot."

He came back from that experience more convinced than ever of the need for African-Americans to understand their heritage. With the social revolution of the late '60s sweeping college campuses, he got an opportunity to turn that view into college courses, first at then-Towson State College in 1969, then at Coppin State, where he found the students eager for African courses, but many in the faculty and administration resistant.

"Middle-class blacks didn't want anything to do with Africa back then," he says.

Holsey had taught part time at Coppin for eight years before joining the faculty in 1970. He spent the rest of his teaching career at the West Baltimore institution.

"He has been a real presence on this campus," Hudgins says. "You couldn't go by his office without seeing students talking to him, or waiting for him. He treated them like his children and they responded the same way, traditional-aged students and older students.

"Even people majoring in other areas would say they had to take a course from Dr. Holsey before they left here. His African courses gave people a sense of identity, but also showed them that there was another way of thinking about the world, that there was more than the traditional way of thinking."

Holsey, who still hears from people he taught at Carver, says simply: "My students are my pride and joy."

He doesn't have the same feeling about the administration at Coppin. "I had my clashes with them. They spent too much money on sports and not enough on the rest of the facility."

Says Hudgins: "He was sort of a thorn in the side of the administration at times. But people always respected him. I do think it hurt him financially."

Holsey reports, with pride, that he never made more than $43,000 and retired "with the dubious reputation as the lowest-paid full tenured professor in the Social Sciences Department."

Holsey sees no conflict between his identity with his African heritage and his belief in the universal brotherhood of man. He says that not only is Africa the place where humanity first evolved, but that all European and African spiritual systems came out of Egypt.

"That's an African country," he says of Egypt. "It was the European historians who tried to put it in Asia, call it the Middle East. Africa is the birthplace. It's where it all began. We all have a relationship with Africa."

Though Holsey lives alone, his house is full of ancestors. He doesn't say that they have died, but that they have "recycled." Their pictures surround the archway into the living room. At the peak is the face of the grandmother who told of her mother, the slave.

"When she would see us children after Sunday school, she would say, 'You're all dressed up, you must be off to Ile-Ife.' " Holsey says of his grandmother, referring to the Nigerian city that is the legendary home of the founder of the Yoruba people whose spiritual system he follows.

"When I first went to Nigeria, I realized I had been trying to go to Ife all my life. I think my great-grandmother was trying to tell us where she was from."

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