Frank Snowden; Major Scholar of Blacks in Antiquity

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.

At Harvard, Dr. Snowden also received a master's degree in classics in 1933 and a doctorate in 1944. His doctoral dissertation on slavery and freedom in Pompeii formed the basis of his later scholarship.

After early teaching jobs at what was then Virginia State College in Petersburg and Atlanta's Spelman College, he joined the Howard faculty in 1942 and spent many years as classics department chairman. From 1956 to 1968, Dr. Snowden was dean of Howard's College of Liberal Arts, overseeing all undergraduate programs. He helped start the school's honors program.

Starting in the late 1960s, Dr. Snowden was criticized by more militant students and teachers for his disapproval of Afrocentrism, a movement to highlight the roots of black culture often at the expense of white European civilization. Some historians likened Afrocentric teaching to "ethnic cheerleading," a position Dr. Snowden also held.

"If you're white and you criticize Afrocentrism, you're a Eurocentrist racist," he said. "If you're black and criticize it, you're a black duped by white scholarship." Above all, he thought that Afrocentrism read "20th-century biases back into antiquity and by seeing color prejudice where none existed."

During the Vietnam War era, Howard, like other universities, attracted student protests over the war and academic concerns. As a faculty leader, Dr. Snowden was a frequent target of student anger, and at one point he was hanged in effigy with university President James M. Nabrit Jr. and Selective Service director Lewis B. Hershey. He resigned his deanship soon after.

Dr. Snowden was fluent in Latin, Greek, German, French and Italian. He first visited Italy in 1938, when he won a Rosenwald fellowship, and went back a decade later as a Fulbright scholar. A frequent lecturer abroad on State Department-sponsored tours, he was named cultural attache at the U.S. Embassy to Rome in 1953 at the urging of Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce.

Time magazine reported that his appointment combated "two of the standard Communist-propaganda charges against" the United States, "that 1) Americans are materialistic and cultureless, 2) the Negroes are downtrodden."

His appointment did not prevent condescending attitudes from occasionally emerging. According to a news attache at the embassy, one visiting congressman appeared to criticize Dr. Snowden for writing his doctoral thesis on slavery in the Roman Empire.

"Well, since you are a Negro, I suppose that was of special interest to you," the congressman said.

"Actually, my special interest was in the fact that nearly all of the slaves in ancient Rome were white," Dr. Snowden said.

The congressman stomped off.

Dr. Snowden was married to the former Elaine Hill, a high school art teacher, from 1935 until her death in 2005.

Survivors include two children, Jane Lepscky of Washington and Frank M. Snowden III of New Haven, Conn.; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company