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Frank Snowden; Major Scholar of Blacks in Antiquity

Jean Fritz and Frank M. Snowden Jr., front row, and other National Humanities Medal winners are honored. Edith Kurzweil and John Updike, standing at left, and Midge Decter, Robert Ballard, Joan Ganz Cooney and Joseph Epstein flank President Bush, who presented the medals.
Jean Fritz and Frank M. Snowden Jr., front row, and other National Humanities Medal winners are honored. Edith Kurzweil and John Updike, standing at left, and Midge Decter, Robert Ballard, Joan Ganz Cooney and Joseph Epstein flank President Bush, who presented the medals. (2003 Photo By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 22, 2007

Frank M. Snowden Jr., 95, a Howard University classicist for almost 50 years whose research into blacks in ancient Greece and Rome opened a new field of study, died Feb. 18 at the Grand Oaks assisted living home in Washington. He had congestive heart failure.

As a black man, Dr. Snowden was a rarity in classics, but ancient history consumed him since his youth as a prize-winning student at the Boston Latin School and later at Harvard University. His body of work led to a National Humanities Medal in 2003, a top government honor for scholars, writers, actors and artists.

Much of his scholarship centered on one point: that blacks in the ancient world seemed to have been spared the virulent racism common to later Western civilization. "The onus of intense color prejudice cannot be placed upon the shoulders of the ancients," he wrote.

Dr. Snowden's most notable books are "Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience" (1970), which took him 15 years to research, and "Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks" (1983). Both were published by Harvard University Press.

Using evidence he found in literature and art, he showed that blacks were able not only to coexist with Greeks and Romans but also were often revered as charioteers, fighters and actors.

Because Romans and Greeks first encountered blacks as soldiers and mercenaries and not slaves or "savages," they did not classify them as inferior and seek ways to rationalize their enslavement, he said.

William Harris, a Columbia University professor who specializes in Greek and Roman history, said Dr. Snowden was the first person to write in a serious way about blacks in antiquity, and his books influenced other scholars, including George M. Fredrickson ("Racism: A Short History") and Martin Bernal ("Black Athena").

However, Harris said: "Snowden really wanted to find a world in antiquity which was without the plague that inflicted America throughout its history, and he pushed the evidence too far to find an ideal pre-modern, pre-medieval world. There was undoubtedly some racism in antiquity, but he talked it down to being minimal. . . . He was right, to a point."

M.I. Finley, an eminent Cambridge University classicist, once wrote in The Washington Post that "Blacks in Antiquity" tended toward overstatement but that it was "at least something" in a much-neglected field.

Frank Martin Snowden Jr. was born July 17, 1911, in York County, Va. He was raised in Boston, where his father, a former Army Department civilian who specialized in race relations, became a businessman.

He graduated in 1932 from Harvard University, where he won a classics prize for an essay he signed "Plato" because anonymous submission was required.

"If you look in the Harvard Library index under Plato, you find one card that says, 'See Snowden,' " he liked to joke in later years.


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