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Clarke, John Henrik(1915–1998) - Historian, writer, educator, Harlem: An Unconventional Education

african history york studies

Black Nationalist, Pan-Africanist, writer, and historian John Henrik Clarke is a part of a generation of African American scholars devoted to the restoration of African history and African peoples from limited, distorted, and racist characterizations. He is known as one of the most significant contributors to the development of African and African American studies in American colleges and universities during the post-civil rights era.

John Henrik Clarke was born on January 1, 1915 to Will Ella Mayes Clark and John Clark in Union Springs, Alabama. Clarke was born John Henry Clark; he altered his name by adding an “e” to his last name and changing his middle name to Henrik in honor of Henrik Ibsen, a playwright whom Clarke admired. Clarke’s parents were sharecroppers. In his oral autobiography, recorded by Barbara Adams, Clarke explains that his family was nurturing and supportive of the children. With hopes of making more money, his father decided to move his family to Columbus, Georgia. In Columbus, Clarke’s mother worked as a washerwoman and his father worked in a brick yard. Clarke had two siblings, Mary and Nathaniel. Clarke’s mother died of pellagra, a disease caused by deficiency of niacin, which was not curable at the time. About a year later, his father married again. His father and stepmother had three additional children. In his oral autobiography, Clarke refers to the woman his father married only as his stepmother. Clarke explained that his stepmother informed him often, “I married your father, but I am not your mother.” Finding his home life intolerable, at the age of fourteen Clarke moved out of his father’s home. Clarke indicates that his mother’s other children soon left his father’s house, too. He moved into a boarding school run by Rosa Lee Brown who was supportive of Clarke.

Harlem: An Unconventional Education

While Clarke’s intellectual and creative potential were recognized by his teachers, poverty and circumstance did not permit him to complete high school. He left school in the eighth grade to work. In 1933, he and his friend James Holmes left for New York. When they arrived in Harlem, they had difficulty finding a place to live and work. But their circumstances changed when they met a man named George Victor. Victor was a communist and recruited Clarke and his friend to become members of the Lower East Side’s Young Communist League. Clarke’s affiliation with the communist organization gave him a number of contacts and allowed him to further his education by exposing him to new ideas and books. However, Clarke eventually split with the communists over the issue of race. Clarke’s first loyalty was to his race and his communist friends believed this to be a problem.

While Clarke worked as a dishwasher, he also participated in various educational clubs. As a member of a history club, he was in contact with well known scholars such as John Jackson and Willis Huggins. Black leaders and scholars, including the first president of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, visited the club. During this time, Clarke was mentored by scholar and librarian Arthur Schomburg. In 1931, Clarke was impressed by one of Schomburg’s essays, “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” and he was encouraged by this essay to meet Schomburg, which he did in 1934. At the time Schomburg was the librarian in charge of special collections at the 135th Street branch of New York City Public Libraries (which would later become the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Conversations with Schomburg gave Clarke a strong foundation for continuing his studies in history. Arthur Schomburg died in 1938, but Clarke continued his studies of history.

From 1941 to 1945, Clarke served in the army and was successful in administrative duties. After returning to New York, he married the mother of his first child, a daughter who eventually died. The couple had difficulties and soon divorced. Despite these personal problems, however, Clarke continued to grow intellectually.

During the late 1940s, Clarke taught African and African American history at various community centers in Harlem. In 1949, he worked as an administrator for the New School for Social Research. In 1956, he began teaching at the New School. From 1958 to1959, Clarke traveled through West Africa, spending a good portion of his time in Ghana. He met Kwame Nkrumah, who remembered Clarke from the history club in New York. Nkrumah offered him a job working for the newspaper, The Evening News . He also lectured in Africa at various places, including the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and at the University of Ghana.

Scholar, Educator, Advocate for Black Studies

When he returned to the United States, Clarke was certified to teach, obtaining a license from the People’s College in Malverne, New York. In 1961, he married Eugenia Evans, a teacher. Clarke and Evans had two children: a daughter, Nzinga Marie, and a son Sonni Kojo. In 1964, Clarke accepted a position as director of the Heritage Teaching Program for the Harlem Youth-Associated Community Teams. He taught African and African American history in the Head Start Training Program at New York University in Manhattan. During this time, Clarke also worked as an associate editor for Freedomways magazine. While he had published numerous short stories, including his most famous, “The Boy Who Painted Christ Black,” during this time he began to publish books on African and African American studies. He edited and published an anthology of African American short stories in 1966, Black American Short Stories: A Century of the Best . He also published several books on African history, including Malcolm X: The Man and His Time (1969), Slave Trade and Slavery , a book co-edited with historian Vincent Harding in 1970, and the anthology Harlem Voices (1970).


1915 Born in Union Springs, Alabama on January 1

1919 Family moves to Columbus, Georgia

1929 Leaves father’s house and moves into boarding house

1933 Arrives in Harlem

1941 Serves in the United States Army

1949 Works as an administrator at the New School for Social Research in New York City

1956 Works as both a student and a teacher at the New School for Social Research; establishes Center for African Studies at the New School for Social Research

1958 Travels to West Africa

1961 Marries Eugenia Evans

1962 Teaches adult continuing education at Malverne High School in Malverne, New York

1966 Publishes anthology, Black American Short Stories, a Century of the Best

1969 Accepts position as lecturer at Hunter College in New York City; establishes the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter

1970–73 Works as a visiting professor in African Studies and Research Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; promoted to associate professor at Hunter College; publishes Slave Trade and Slavery with Vincent Harding

1985 Retires from Hunter College

1991 Publishes lectures with Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan; publishes Africans at the Crossroads

1992 Earns B.A. from Pacific Western University in Los Angeles, California

1993 Publishes African People in World History ; publishes Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust

1994 Earns Ph.D. from Pacific Western University in Los Angeles, California

1997 Marries Sybil Williams

1998 Dies in New York City on July 16

In the 1960s, Clarke was widely recognized as an authority in the field of African history. His books and articles on African and African American history and social issues in journals and magazines added to his reputation. In 1969, he accepted a position as lecturer at Hunter College in New York City. He helped to establish the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter. In 1970, he was promoted to associate professor at Hunter College. In addition to teaching at Hunter College, from 1970 to 1973, he was a visiting professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

In 1985, Clarke retired from Hunter College, but he continued to lecture on African history in the United States and aboard. In 1991, Yosef Ben-Jochannan, an African-centered historian, and Clarke published a collection of their lectures given in London. Clarke also published African People at the Crossroads (1991). In 1993 he published Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust in which he argues that Columbus Day should not be celebrated. Also in 1993, he published African People in World History .

Clarke had taught courses in African and African American history; had helped to establish black studies programs, departments, and research centers on at least three college campuses; and had published extensively on black history and on social issues. But he did not have a high school diploma, an undergraduate degree, or an advanced degree. In 1992, this changed when Clarke earned his bachelor’s degree from Pacific Western University in Los Angeles, California, and in 1994 he earned his doctorate from the same university. In 1997, Clarke married for a third time, this time to Sybil Williams. Clarke suffered a heat attack and died on July 16, 1998; he was 83.

In November 2000, the New York City Council renamed Harlem’s 137th Street Dr. John Henrik Clarke Place. Students, scholars, and activists are indebted to Clarke for his life of service and commitment to African studies.

Clarke, Kenny (actually, Kenneth Spearman; aka “Klook”; “Klook-mop”; Salaam,Liaquat Ali) [next] [back] Clarke, Henry Leland

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