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John Henrik Clarke (January 1, 1915 - July 16, 1998), born John Henry Clark, was a Pan-Africanist American writer, historian, professor, and a pioneer in the creation of Africana studies and professional institutions in academia starting in the late 1960s.

He was Professor of African World History and in 1969 founding chairman of the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He also was the Carter G. Woodson Distinguished Visiting Professor of African History at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center. In 1968 along with the Black Caucus of the African Studies Association, Clarke founded the African Heritage Studies Association.

A self-educated intellectual, Clarke documented the histories and contributions of African peoples in Africa and the diaspora, creating an Afrocentric perspective.


Early life and education

Born as the eldest child 1 January 1915 in Union Springs, Alabama to sharecroppers John (Doctor) and Willie Ella (Mays) Clark, John Henry Clark was encouraged to learn. While his father hoped he would work his own land one day, the boy found different aspirations. He renamed himself John Henrik (after rebel playwright Henrik Ibsen) and adding an "e" to his surname Clarke, as a symbol. His curiosity about his people was aroused as a boy and he pursued knowledge all his life.

Clarke left the South in 1933 by freight train and went to Harlem, New York, for a life of scholarship and activism.


Harlem was intellectually rich due to the concentration of people attracted from across the country with the Great Migration from the South and the rise of the Harlem Renaissance. Clarke developed his skills as a writer and lecturer through social movements of the Great Depression years. He joined study circles like the Harlem History Club and the Harlem Writers' Workshop. He studied history and world literature at New York University, at Columbia University, and at the League for Professional Writers.[1] He was one of the "self-educated intellectuals" who arose in African-American life and he found mentors, such as scholar Arthur Schomburg, from his circles in Harlem.[2] At the age of 78 Clarke earned a doctorate from non-accredited Pacific Western University in Los Angeles.[3]

Achieving public prominence during the years of Black Power, Clarke was an outspoken advocate for black studies, or study of the African-American experience and the place of Africans in world history. He challenged traditional academic history as an outsider, and helped shift the way African history was studied and taught. Clarke was "a scholar devoted to redressing what he saw as a systematic and racist suppression and distortion of African history by traditional scholars." When some of the scholarship he championed was dismissed by traditional historians, Clarke accused them of their own biases in promoting Eurocentric views. While some of his views were controversial, Clarke did create a framework for studies of the history of Africa and the diaspora of its peoples.[3]

"He devoted himself to placing people of African ancestry 'on the map of human geography'."[4] He was often quoted saying that "History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are, but more importantly, what they must be."[5]

In addition to his teaching career at Hunter College and Cornell University, Clarke was active in creating professional associations to support the study of black culture. He was a founder and first president of the African Heritage Studies Association, which supported scholars in areas of history, culture, literature and the arts. He was a founding member of other organizations to recognize and support work in black culture: the Black Academy of Arts and Letters and the African-American Scholars' Council.[1]

His writing spanned six scholarly books, scholarly articles, and editing anthologies of black writing, a well as his own short stories, and more general interest articles. Clarke was described as a gadfly of Harlem intellectual life.[3]

He was co-founder of the Harlem Quarterly (1949-51), book review editor of the Negro History Bulletin (1948-52), associate editor of the magazine Freedomways, and a feature writer for the Pittsburgh Courier and the Ghana Evening News.[1] w.e

Marriage and family

Clarke had three children with his first wife, Eugenia Evans Clarke, a daughter who predeceased him, Lillie, and two surviving children, Nzingha Marie and Sonni Kojo.

At his death he was survived by his second wife Sybille Williams Clarke and his two children.[3] He is buried in Green Acres Cemetery, Columbus, Georgia.[6]

Legacy and honors

  • 1985 - Faculty of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University named the John Henrik Clarke Library after him.[7]
  • 1995 - Carter G. Woodson Medallion, Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History


  1. ^ a b c "John Henrik Clarke", Legacy Exhibit online, New York Public Library Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture, accessed 20 Jan 2009
  2. ^ Jacob H. Carruthers, "John Henrik Clarke: the Harlem connection to the founding of Africana Studies", in Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, Inc., 2006, accessed 25 May 2009
  3. ^ a b c d Thomas, Jr., Robert McG. (July 20, 1998). "John Henrik Clarke, Black Studies Advocate, Dies at 83". New York Times. Retrieved January 21, 2009.  
  4. ^ Robert L. Harris, Jr., "IN MEMORIAM DR. JOHN HENRIK CLARKE, 1915-1998", The Journal of Negro History, September, 1998, accessed 25 May 2009
  5. ^ Eric Kofi Acree, "John Henrik Clarke: Historian, Scholar, and Teacher", John Henrik Clarke Africana Library, Cornell University, accessed 25 May 2009
  6. ^ The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, p. 122, Simon and Schuster, 1998
  7. ^ "History of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library", reprinted from: Black Caucus of the ALA Newsletter, vol. XXIV, No. 5 (April, 1996), p. 11; Cornell University Library, accessed 20 Jan 2009
  8. ^ Molefi Kete Asante (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.

External links

Additional reading

See also



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