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Frank M. Snowden Jr., 95, Historian of Blacks in Antiquity, Dies

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      Frank M. Snowden Jr., 95, Historian of Blacks in Antiquity, Dies

      By MARGALIT FOX

      Published: February 28, 2007

      Frank M. Snowden Jr., a historian who was a leading authority on the lives of black people in the ancient world, died on Feb. 18 in Washington . He was 95 and had lived in Washington for many years.

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      William Philpott/Reuters, 2003

      Frank M. Snowden Jr. received the National Humanities Medal.

      The cause was congestive heart failure, his son, Frank M. Snowden III, said.

      At his death, Dr. Snowden was distinguished professor of history emeritus at Howard University , where he had taught for half a century. He was also a former United States cultural attaché in Rome , the first African-American to hold the post there.

      In his work, Dr. Snowden documented Greek and Roman encounters with black Africans over many centuries, contending that racial prejudice, at least as it is defined today, was largely unknown in antiquity. His books include “Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience” (Harvard University, 1970) and “Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks” (Harvard University, 1983).

      Dr. Snowden’s scholarship took in a 3,000-year period, from the middle of the third millennium B.C. to the sixth century A.D. Trained as a classicist, he mined Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian, Hebrew and early Christian texts and also visited museums around the world to examine the depictions of blacks in ancient art.

      Though Dr. Snowden was not the first to study blacks in antiquity, his work helped ensure that the subject was more than a scholarly curiosity, Maghan Keita, a professor of history at Villanova University and the author of “Race and the Writing of History” (Oxford University, 2000), said yesterday in a telephone interview.

      “He gave the study its body, its heft, its weight,” Dr. Keita said. “And he made that study a body of work that is almost unassailable by people who want to believe that there is no African presence in the classical world.”

      Whites in the ancient world rarely equated blackness with subordination, Dr. Snowden argued, because the black people they encountered were rarely slaves. (Most slaves in the Roman Empire , for instance, were white.) Instead, they met blacks who were warriors, statesmen and mercenaries.

      While some critics accused Dr. Snowden of idealizing the past, he maintained throughout his career that racial bias was a relatively modern phenomenon.

      “Nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world,” Dr. Snowden wrote in “Before Color Prejudice.” He added: “The ancients did not fall into the error of biological racism; black skin color was not a sign of inferiority; Greeks and Romans did not establish color as an obstacle to integration.”

      Frank Martin Snowden Jr. was born in rural York County , Va. , on July 17, 1911; his father, Frank M. Sr., was an Army colonel. The family moved to Boston when Frank Jr. was a child, and he attended the Boston Latin School , where he was first captivated by the classics. He earned a bachelor’s degree in classics from Harvard in 1932, followed by master’s and doctoral degrees in the field, also from Harvard, in 1933 and 1944.

      After teaching at Virginia State and Spelman Colleges , Dr. Snowden joined the Howard faculty in 1940, serving over the years as chairman of the classics department and dean of the college of liberal arts. In the 1950s, he lectured in Europe, Africa and elsewhere for the State Department; from 1954 to 1956, he was the cultural attaché at the American Embassy in Rome .

      Dr. Snowden’s wife, the former Elaine Hill, whom he married in 1935, died in 2005. Besides his son, Frank M. III, a professor of 20th-century Italian history at Yale, Dr. Snowden is survived by a daughter, Jane Lepscky, a linguist, of Washington ; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

      His other work includes “The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume I: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire ” (Morrow, 1976), written with several co-authors. In 2003, President Bush awarded Dr. Snowden the National Humanities Medal.

      In a literal sense, Dr. Keita of Villanova said, Dr. Snowden’s scholarship helped change the complexion of antiquity.

      “It’s probably one of the most important bodies of work out there in terms of getting people to understand that people of African descent inhabited the entire globe at all periods of historical time,” Dr. Keita said. “And not only that they inhabited the globe, but that they’ve had a profound impact on the way in which the world and its history has been shaped.”

       

       

       

       

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