Who was St. Clair Drake?

By Margot D. Weiss

John Gibbs St. Clair Drake was a pioneering black social anthropologist and activist, one of only nine black anthropologists before WWII. He dedicated his scholarship – ethnographic studies of race, class, and social structure – to the eradication of social inequalities and racial injustice.

Photo of St. Clair Drake

Born in Suffolk, Virginia in 1911, Drake attended the black Hampton Institute, and then Pendle Hill, a Quaker graduate school outside Philadelphia. In 1935, Allison Davis, a teacher from Hampton, asked Drake to assist with anthropological research in Natchez, Mississippi on a project called Deep South. Drake began two years of fieldwork with the town’s lower class sharecroppers and factory workers. With the urging of Davis and W. Lloyd Warner, he applied for a Rosenwald Fellowship to attend the University of Chicago and began formal training in anthropology. His PhD was awarded in 1954.

Drake was an activist anthropologist. He was initially drawn to Anthropology because he believed it could “aid in dissipating stereotypes about black people and in eliminating errors based on confusion between biological and environmental factors in accounting for observed racial differences,” [1] as he explained in a 1988 interview with George Clement Bond. While at the U of C, he began pioneering fieldwork in Chicago on migration, race, class, and community. The work was published with sociologist Horace Cayton as Black Metropolis (1945) – a groundbreaking, landmark work in the anthropology of race and urban anthropology.

After dissertation fieldwork in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, Drake’s political and intellectual interests shifted to Pan-Africanism, and the potential of newly independent African nations. He moved to West Africa, where he taught at the University of Liberia and the University of Ghana, and did ethnographic research in Ghana until 1966. During this time (1946-1968), Drake also developed and administered one of the first African Studies programs, at Roosevelt College in Chicago. In 1969, he took a position at Stanford University as the head of Black Studies. Drake remained at Stanford until his retirement in 1976. He died in 1990.

For Drake, generalized social theory was useful for analysis, but his primary concern was with the applied, activist relevance of his ethnographic research. Bringing the tools of anthropology to social activism – uniting theory and praxis – has been one of Drake’s most enduring contributions to a politically-engaged anthropology. Drake many publications and ethnographic research on race, class, status, and political economy in the US South, Chicago’s Southside, Tiger Bay and Ghana pioneered anthropological analysis of the African Diaspora and the development of African-American Studies. He fought against racism and injustice throughout his career: he participated in a student strike at Hampton against white domination; he was active in a fight against urban renewal in Hyde Park while a student at Chicago; he was an active member of CORE, NAACP, SNCC, and the National Negro Congress, among other political groups; he advised Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister of Ghana; and he trained Peace Corps volunteers to Ghana.

It was not until his tenure at Stanford University, late in his career, that St. Clair Drake was first given the chance to train graduate students in anthropology.  He worked closely with Faye Harrison (U Florida), Willie Baber (U Florida), Edmund “Ted” Gordon (U Texas-Austin), and Glen Jordan (U Glamorgan, Wales UK). Before that he influenced the lives and studies of many undergraduate students and Roosevelt University, including the late Vera Green (Rutgers).

As Faye Harrison writes:

His commitment to activism and scholarship, to using anthropology as a vehicle for change has been exhibited throughout his career. His applied research in West Africa was pioneering. His US-based anti-racist activism and scholarship has provided an important model for many across the social sciences and humanities. His seminal contributions to African Diaspora Studies have encouraged many to situate their more localized intellectual concerns and political struggles within a broader context of international relations of power and economy. Dr. Drake’s life and work should inspire us to reaffirm our goal to transform anthropology.[2]

The St. Clair Drake Fellowship honors his legacy by renewing the AAA’s and SANA’s commitment to politically-engaged, activist anthropology by encouraging promising graduate students to do ethnography in North America and present their research at professional conferences.[3]

  1. George Clement Bond and John Gibbs St. Clair Drake. 1988. “A Social Portrait of John Gibbs St. Clair Drake: An American Anthropologist,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 15, No. 4:762-781. See also John Gibbs St. Clair Drake. 1978. “Reflections on Anthropology and the Black Experience,” Anthropology & Education Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2: 85-109 and Timothy P. Daniels. 2000. “Ruminations of Du Bois, Davis and Drake,” Transforming Anthropology, Vol. 9, No. 1: 30-43.
  2. Faye V. Harrison. 1990. “From The President,” Transforming Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 1: 11.
  3. Thanks to Faye Harrison and Matt Thompson for contributing to this piece.