March 1, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 29
Send this page to a friend!


Noted scholar Frank M. Snowden Jr. dies

Howard Manly

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

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.

“A lion-hearted classicist, he is an Olympian man,” said President Bush in his presentation of the award.

Much of Snowden’s 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.

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 Snowden was the first person to write in a serious way about blacks in antiquity and that his books influenced other scholars, including George M. Fredrickson (“Racism: A Short History”) and Martin Bernal (“Black Athena”).

Snowden was born in York County, Va. His father, Frank M. Snowden Sr., an Army officer who retired as a colonel, moved the family to Roxbury.

His interest in the ancient world began at the Boston Latin School and continued throughout his life. Harvard University awarded him bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees. Honorary degrees followed from Bard College, Union College, Howard and Georgetown Universities, and the University of Maryland.

A member of the Howard faculty from 1940 to 1990, Snowden also served as chairman of Howard’s department of classics, dean of the university’s College of Liberal Arts and recipient of the school’s Distinguished Scholar and Outstanding Teacher Awards. After retirement, Snowden was adjunct professor of classics at Georgetown (1990–1991) and visiting distinguished professor of classics at Vassar College (1992).

Snowden served the U.S. Department of State as lecturer at the Foreign Service Institute; as U.S. leader and specialist in North and West Africa, Western Europe, India and Brazil; as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris; and as cultural attaché of the American embassy in Rome. This assignment earned him Italy’s Medaglia d’Oro in recognition of his outstanding educational and cultural contributions.

In a letter to the Washington Post, Walter B. Doyle described an encounter Snowden had while he served as cultural attaché of the American embassy in Rome in the 1950s.

Doyle was the press attaché, and, more than anything else, the story embodies the spirit of Roxbury and the intellectual fearlessness of Snowden’s generation.

Early in his tenure, Doyle wrote, a visiting congressman skeptically asked a few questions.

Learning that Snowden had received his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard, the congressman asked the subject of the doctoral thesis.

“Slavery in the ancient Roman empire,” Snowden replied.

“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,” came the reply.

The congressman ceased his questioning.

As a scholar, Snowden was known for his scholarship in an area of ancient history that he made his own — blacks in antiquity. His “Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience” received the Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit from the American Philological Association. He co-authored “The Image of the Black in Western Art I: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire.” His “Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks,” an assessment of the lack of color prejudice among the ancients, was published by Harvard University Press, as were his other books. He also contributed chapters in “Black Athena Revisited,” edited by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers, and an autobiographical chapter in “Against the Odds: Scholars Who Challenged Racism in the Twentieth Century,” edited by Benjamin P. Bowser, Louis Kushnick and Paul Grant.

Snowden’s appointments and awards were many: Fulbright Scholar in Italy; fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; and fellowships from both the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was lecturer for the Archeological Institute of America, a member of the board of directors and a vice president of the American Philological Association, and served two terms on the Harvard Board of Overseers Committee to visit the Department of Classics.

In 2003, he was honored by Howard University’s Department of Classics and Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center at The Inaugural Frank M. Snowden Jr. Lecture. In 2004, President Bush presented him with a National Humanities Medal citing “a life of eminent scholarship, inspirational teaching, public service and personal courage on behalf of our civilization’s noblest ideals.”

Snowden was the brother of Otto Snowden, who with his wife, Muriel, founded Freedom House. Otto Snowden died in 1995. Frank Snowden’s wife, Elaine, died in 2005.

He leaves a daughter, Jane Lepscky of Washington; a son, Frank, of New Haven, Conn.; four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Services were held at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

Frank M. Snowden Jr., a widely respected scholar on blacks in the ancient world, passed away Sunday in Washington, D.C., at the age of 95. His love for antiquity began at the Boston Latin School and continued at Harvard University. (Photo courtesy of the Snowden family)

Click here to send a letter to the editor

Back to Top