John Henrik Clarke (aka John Henry Clark)
January 1, 1915 – July 16, 1998
Notable: Historian & Professor
John Henry Clark was born in Union Springs, Alabama to a mother who was a laundress and a father who was a sharecropper. Given that the sharecropping system was often used as a means to exploit Black farmers, many struggled to keep themselves and their families out of poverty. This was also the case for Clark’s father. Adding to his difficulties was a fire on the family farm that prompted them to relocate to Columbus, Georgia when Clark was four. Unfortunately, Clark’s mother died a few years later and his father continued to struggle while harboring a dream to one day purchase and work his land.
In his youth, Clark had the opportunity to attend country schools and became literate which was not the norm for his family as he was the first to do so. His intelligence impressed his teachers and showed early signs of an incredible memory and the ability to freestyle oral compositions. As a young man, Clark taught youth Bible study at a local church. In this role, he noted that many of the events took place in Africa but no African people were depicted in the lessons. He had also been told that his people, Africans, had no history. This sparked his curiosity and motivated Clark to self-educate himself by researching Africa though he was prevented from borrowing library books due to segregation.
At 18 years old, Clark left school and the family farm to join the Great Migration. He journeyed North by train first to Chicago, Illinois, and then East to Harlem, New York City. Once settled, he became a protégé of Arturo Schomburg and was inspired to dive more deeply into his study of Africa. Working full-time to support himself, Clark spent a lot of time visiting the city’s libraries. It was during this period after arriving in the North that he modified his middle and last name.
While he would take courses at various colleges and universities, Clarke never completed a degree and remained mostly self-taught. While living in the South Clarke had been drawn to the city by stories of Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance. He became a member of study and literary groups like the Harlem History Club and the Harlem Writers’ Workshop. After serving in World War II, Clarke joined the wave of small-scale publishers and co-founded and/or contributed to several Black newspapers and magazines.
In 1949, he began his career as a formal educator within the recently established African Studies Center at the New School for Social Research. Dates are unclear but he either taught at the African Studies Center intermittingly or straight through 1958. At some point during this time, he became a mentor to the future first Prime Minister and President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who was then a student studying in America.
After leaving the African Studies Center in 1958, Clarke journeyed to West Africa reconnected with Nkrumah. The relationship led to Clarke accepting a journalist position at a Ghanian newspaper and becoming a regional chief. He also lectured at the University of Ghana and the University of Ibadan in Nigeria while traveling extensively.
Upon returning to America in the 1960s, Clarke earned a teaching license and became a key figure in the Black Power Movement. He challenged the long-prevailing practice of excluding the Black American experience from the teaching of American history and the racist idea of Africa as the unevolved “dark continent”. Clarke’s call for change and expansion of the academic study of history basically created Pan-African and Africana studies.
Mainstream academics attempted to patronizingly dismiss his work and activism as a matter of insecurity causing him to overstate the accomplishments of Black people and Africa in world history. In lectures along with scholarly articles and books, he debated and refuted their claims pointing to the reality that mainstream history is often told from a European view that ignores or downplays the contributions of other peoples.
Clarke became a lecturer at Hunter College in 1969 where he led the establishment of the Black and Puerto Rican Studies Department. He also taught at Cornell University as a distinguished visiting Professor of African history. Upon his retirement from these institutions in the 1980s, Cornell named a new library branch in his honor.
John Henrik Clarke became completely blind in his later years but had still managed to continue writing and lecturing. By the time of his death from a heart attack at 83 years old, he’d penned several books and enjoyed a 60-year career as a lecturer on Black and African history. He was survived by his wife and four children produced by his two marriages.
- “John H. Clarke, Historian, and Educator Born.” 2022. African American Registry. January 1, 2022. https://aaregistry.org/story/historian-educator-john-h-clarke/.
- Rob, Abdul. 2017. “John Henrik Clarke – the Pioneer Who Made Africana Studies Prominent in Academia.” Black History Month. February 2, 2017. https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/bhm-heroes/john-henrik-clarke/.
- Selassie, W. Gabriel. 2007. “John Henrik Clarke (1915-1998).” Blackpast.org. January 23, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/clarke-john-henrik-1915-1998/.
- Thomas, Robert Mcg. 1998. “John Henrik Clarke, Black Studies Advocate, Dies at 83.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. July 20, 1998. https://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/20/arts/john-henrik-clarke-black-studies-advocate-dies-at-83.html.
- Carter G. Woodson
- The Harlem Renaissance
- Arturo Schomburg
- Stamped from the Beginning [Book Review] (Coming On 02/25)
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