John Henrik Clarke, 83, African history scholar



John Henrik Clarke, 83, an Alabama sharecropper's son whose thirst for unfettered knowledge led him to hop a freight train to New York and transform himself into an African history scholar who helped spur the development of black studies, died of a heart attack Thursday.

Mr. Clarke was a professor emeritus at Hunter College, where he joined the faculty as a lecturer in 1969. He established black studies programs there and at Cornell University.

If it is unusual to become a full college professor without benefit of a high school diploma, let alone a Ph.D., nobody said he wasn't an academic original.

An eighth-grade dropout who eventually took courses at New York University and Columbia but never graduated, Clarke, who ultimately received a doctorate from the nonaccredited Pacific Western University in Los Angeles at age 78, was hardly stymied by the lack of formal academic credentials.

Indeed, as a scholar devoted to redressing what he saw as a systematic and racist suppression and distortion of African history by traditional scholars, he said he had not missed all that much.

In a varied career during which he wrote six books, edited and contributed to 17 others, wrote more than 50 short stories, turned out a stream of articles and pamphlets, helped found or edit several important black quarterlies, lectured widely and did research in every African country except South Africa, Mr. Clarke became an imposing figure in black intellectual circles.

A native of Union Springs, Ala., who moved to Georgia as an infant, he demonstrated his academic prowess early, once amazing one of his teachers by "reading" a seamless English essay. The teacher later realized, after seeing that the student's pages were blank, the essay had been composed on the fly. (A man with a prodigious memory, Mr. Clarke later amazed his students and lecture audiences by delivering complex, detailed lectures without notes.)

After going to New York in 1933, he gravitated to an influential personal tutor, Arnold Schomburg, the scholar whose library became the foundation for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Like Mr. Schomburg, Mr. Clarke said he had been led to study African history after being told that black Africans had no history before European colonization.

Collections Mr. Clarke edited include "American Negro Short Stories" (1966), "Malcolm X: The Man and His Times" (1969), "Harlem U.S.A." (1971) and "Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa" (1973).

Pub Date: 7/21/98

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