Dr. John Henrik Clarke
John Henrik Clarke was born in Union Springs, Alabama on New Years Day, 1915. His family came from a long line of sharecroppers. They moved to Columbus, Georgia, when he was four years old. He drew a powerful image of the woman who taught him in the fifth grade in 1925, in Columbus, Ga., Eveline Taylor. Taylor put a halt to his rambunctious play with other children because she saw something in him. “It’s no disgrace to be alone,” she said, “It’s no disgrace to be right when everybody else thinks you are wrong. There is nothing wrong with being a thinker…. Your playing days are over.”
With that, the teacher helped set the course of life for the student; for those words would reverberate in him when he later taught the junior Bible class at a local Baptist church. Clarke noticed that although many bible stories “unfolded in Africa…I saw no African people in the printed and illustrated Sunday school lessons,” he wrote in 1985. “I began to suspect at this early age that someone had distorted the image of my people. My long search for the true history of African people the world over began.”
That search took him to libraries, museums, attics, archives and collections in Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America and Africa.
What he found was that the history of black people is worldwide; that “the first light of human consciousness and the world’s first civilizations were in Africa”; that the so called Dark Ages were dark only for Europe and that some African nations at the time were larger than any in Europe; that as Africa sends its children to Europe to study because that is where the best universities are, early Greece once sent its children to Africa to study because that was where the best universities were; and that slavery, although devastating was neither the beginning nor the end of Black people’s impact on the world.
Clarke gathered his findings into books on such figures as the early 20th century mass movement leader Marcus Garvey, into articles with titles like “Africa in the Conquest of Spain” and “Harlem as mecca and New Jerusalem,” and many books including American Heritage’s two volume “History of Africa.”
And in little churches and big community centers, Clarke brought his findings to life in talks to black audiences hungry for a history so long lost, stolen or strayed.
“I love the brother” said Los Angeles resident Margaret Logan, a physical therapist who attended Clarke’s book signing party. “He has all this knowledge to give that we need desperately. He makes you think about the greatness of African people.”
While he was teaching at Hunter College in New York and at Cornell University in the 1980’s, Clarke’s lesson plans became well known for their thoroughness. They are so filled with references and details that the Schomburg Library in Harlem asked for copies. Clarke plans to provide them, he said, “so that 50 years from now, when people have a hard time locating my grave, they won’t have a hard time locating my lessons.”
In 1985, the year of his retirement, the newest branch of the Cornell University Library- a 60 seat, 9,000 volume facility- was named the “John Henrik Clarke Africana Library.”
“History is not everything” Clarke once wrote, “but it is the 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.”