Born in 1915, the oldest son of an Alabama sharecropper family, the young John Henrik Clarke left the South in 1933 by way of a freight train, for a life of scholarship and activism in New York. He developed his skills as a writer and lecturer through the radical movements of the Depression years and his assiduous participation in study circles like the Harlem History Club and the Harlem Writers’ Workshop. He studied history and world literature at NYU, at Columbia University and at the League for Professional Writers. The greater part of his education came from studying at libraries and from his early association with prominent historians and bibliophiles like Arturo Schomburg, Willis Huggins, Charles Seiffert, John Jackson and William Leo Hansberry. “I was well-grounded in history before ever taking a history course,” he confided.
Clarke’s political and community activism began in the 1930s with his opposition to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and his membership in the Universal Ethiopian Students Association. A personal friend of Malcolm X who paid tribute to his encyclopedic knowledge of Africa, he was instrumental in drafting the charter of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was awarded the Phelps-Stokes Fund’s Aggrey Medal in 1994 for his role “as a public philosopher and relentless critic of injustice and inequality.”
A gifted story-teller, Dr. Clarke has published more than fifty short stories, including The Boy Who Painted Christ Black, written in his early twenties and translated into more than a dozen languages. He has written or edited more than thirty books. His articles and conference papers on African and African American history, politics and culture have appeared in leading journals throughout the world. His syndicated book review column, African World
Bookshelf was distributed to over fifty newspapers in the United States and abroad by the Associate Negro Press. 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.
In 1968 along with the Black Caucus of the African Studies Association, Dr. Clarke founded the African Heritage Studies Association. In 1969 he was appointed as the founding chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Studies Department at Hunter College in New York City.
A scholar in Pan-African history and the premier historian of the Africana Studies Movement, Clarke was the first African-American hired in the department. Dr. Clarke (later Professor Emeritus), helped establish a reputation for excellence and involvement at the “cutting edge of Africana Studies. The foundation laid by Dr. Clarke is being built upon by the Africana Sequence’s dedicated faculty members through their innovative teaching and research.
Dr. John Henrik Clarke is widely recognized as a pioneer in the field of African Studies. He is most known and highly regarded for his lifelong devotion to studying and documenting the histories and contributions of African peoples in Africa and the diaspora. Clarke played an important role in the early history of Cornell University’s Africana Studies & Research Center. He was a distinguished visiting professor of African history at the Center in the 1970s. He made numerous invaluable contributions to the establishment of its curricula.