Historic Staff Spotlight: Robert L. Clarke

We are taking a look at past staff and their many contributions to the National Archives throughout its history. Today’s staff spotlight is Robert L. Clarke, who served as the first official Black History Specialist at the National Archives.  

Robert Lewis Clarke was born in Orlando, Florida, on February 27, 1920. He graduated from Jones High School in Orlando; St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina; and served in World War II. After graduate work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Syracuse University, Clarke taught American history at Virginia State College (now Virginian State University) in Petersburg, Virginia, for 20 years.

In 1970 the National Archives hired Clarke to be the agency’s first official specialist in Black history. This was a new position tasked with studying, appraising, and preparing resources on records related to Black history within the National Archives. 

In the early 1970s, Clarke served as the National Archives coordinator for Negro History Week (later Black History Month). He also gave talks on Black history research such as in 1971 at the Conference on the National Archives and Research in Historical Geography, where he presented on “Sources for Studies of Negro Population in the National Archives.”

In 1973 he organized the first National Archives conference specifically focused on records related to African Americans. It was the 12th in a series of conferences to inform researchers about the useful research materials in the National Archives and provide guidance to National Archives staff on how best to meet the needs of researchers. 

In addition to presentations by notable scholars on Black history from around the country, the program featured talks by National Archives staff members Harold Pinkett and James Walker as well as J. C. James, Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. Author Alex Haley, who conducted the research for his famous book Roots: The Saga of an American Family at the National Archives, also gave a talk on African American genealogy. 

Clarke earned a Commendable Service Award for his work on leading the conference. He also edited the book Afro-American History: Sources for Research, a compilation of papers presented during the conference, which Howard University Press published in 1981.

During his National Archives career, Clarke assisted numerous researchers and authors, which led to the publication of books on notable African Americans such as Mary McLeod Bethune and George Washington Williams. 

Clarke retired from the National Archives in January 1985 and passed away on March 22, 2005, in Fairfax, Virginia, at age 85.

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