Frank M. Snowden Jr.

National Humanities Medal


"Nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world," writes Frank Snowden Jr. "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 in society. An ancient society was one that for all its faults and failures never made color the basis for judging a man."

One of the world's foremost authorities on blacks in classical antiquity, Snowden exposes racism as a post- classical condition in his book Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience, which received the Charles G. Godwin Award of Merit from the American Philological Association. Drawing on Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, and studying Africans depicted in classical bronzes and terra cotta figurines, Snowden demonstrates that Africans were valued in the Roman Empire as artisans, athletes, scholars, and military leaders.

"The experiences of those Africans who reached the alien shores of Greece and Italy constituted an important chapter in the history of classical antiquity," he writes. He concludes that racism is not universal, and cannot be traced back to antiquity. "The onus of intense color prejudice cannot be placed upon the shoulders of the ancients."

Other publications include Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks and Naples in the Time of Cholera. He is co-author of The Image of the Black in Western Art I: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire.

A graduate of the Boston Latin School, Snowden earned undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. He taught classics at Georgetown University, Vassar College, and Mary Washington College. He was dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Howard University, and was the first honoree in the Howard University Libraries' "Excellence at Howard" program.

In addition to his academic achievements, Snowden served as a cultural attaché to the American Embassy in Rome, and as a lecturer for the U.S. Department of State in West and North Africa, Egypt, Italy, Greece, Austria, India, and Brazil. He was a Fulbright research scholar in Italy, and was decorated with the Medaglia d'Oro for outstanding work in Italian culture and education. He makes his home in Washington, D.C., with his wife of seventy years, Elaine Hill Snowden.


About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.