In Memoriam Dr. John Henrik Clarke, 1915-1998

Article excerpt

Dr. John Henrik Clarke, who in 1995 received the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History's highest award, the Carter G. Woodson Medallion, was fond of saying that "History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their 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." Dr. Clarke, who joined the ancestors on July 16, 1998, devoted himself to placing people of African ancestry "on the map of human geography."

Born January 1, 1915 in Union Springs, Alabama, Dr. Clarke grew up in a poor but nurturing sharecropping family. He developed an early curiosity, especially from biblical stories, about the place of black people in world history. Although he dropped out of school in the eighth grade, that curiosity took him to Harlem, where he joined the Harlem History Club and the Harlem Writers Guild. In the Harlem History Club, he met Arthur A. Schomburg, Willis N. Higgins, and John G. Jackson, who became his mentors in reclaiming the African past.

Known and admired as an historian, Dr. Clarke began his career as a writer. His first published work was a collection of poetry. He wrote more than fifty short stories, the most famous being "The Boy Who Painted Christ Black." A raconteur in the black folk tradition, he honed his skills as a writer for the Pittsburgh Courier and later as associate editor of Freedomways.

Through his association with members of the Harlem History Club as well as Josef ben Jochannan, William Leo Hansberry, Richard B. Moore, and J.A. Rogers, Dr. Clarke learned much about black history. He came from a tradition that researched, wrote, and taught black history outside the academy. It was only with the rise of Black Studies in the late 1960s that Dr. …