In 1991 the governor of Kentucky called Tom Clark “Kentucky’s greatest treasure.” Clark’s inspiration to become one of America’s preeminent historians, however, grew from the soil of Mississippi, where he was born in Louisville, Winston County, on 14 July 1903. He was the eldest of seven children born to John Collinsworth Clark, a cotton farmer, and Sallie Bennett Clark, a schoolteacher. Tom Clark left school to work on the farm and then as a deckhand on a dredger for two years before enrolling at the Choctaw County Agricultural School. He went on to enroll at the University of Mississippi to study law. But a young history professor, Charles Sackett Sydnor, persuaded him to become a historian.
The conversion was easy. Clark’s mother loved history, and he had grown up listening to the stories of former slaves, ex-Confederate soldiers, and Choctaw and was constantly reminded of the South’s terrible ordeal while recovering from the Civil War. He later mused that he had not become a historian of the war because of “just the gruesomeness of it and the tragedy of the whole thing.” His Mississippi upbringing awakened an abiding love of “earthy” history, notably as found in southern frontier life and the emergence of the New South from the “long, slow, and sad struggle over the years.” Likewise, he turned toward social history as a consequence of his college and summer jobs: tending a golf course with William Faulkner, cutting railroad ties, growing cotton, and shoring up and mapping new Mississippi River channels.
After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1928, he earned a master’s degree from the University of Kentucky in 1929, enticed there by a small scholarship, and a doctorate from Duke University in 1932. He taught at the University of Kentucky until 1968 and chairing the history department from 1942 to 1965. He also taught and lectured at many other universities, including Harvard, Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, and Oxford. He served as president of the Southern Historical Association and the Mississippi Valley Historical Association and helped found the Organization of American Historians. An avid collector of historical documents, he fathered the Kentucky State Archives, the University of Kentucky Archives, and the Kentucky History Center and Museum.
In addition to scores of articles, Clark authored, coauthored, or edited an astonishing fifty books between 1933 and 2002, among them A History of Kentucky (1937); The Kentucky (1942); Pills, Petticoats, and Plows: The Southern Country Store (1944); The Southern Country Editor (1948); Frontier America: The Story of the Westward Movement (1959); Travels in the South, 6 vols. (1948–69); Kentucky: Land of Contrast (1968); and Indiana University: Midwestern Pioneer, 4 vols. (1970–77).
Clark married Martha Elizabeth Turner in 1933; they had a son and daughter. After her death in 1995, he married Loretta Gilliam Brock in 1998. He died on 28 June 2005.
- Roger Adelson, Historian (Spring 1992)
- John E. Kleber, ed., Thomas D. Clark of Kentucky: An Uncommon Life in the Commonwealth (2003)
- Frank Steely and H. Lew Wallace, Filson Club History Quarterly (1986)
- H. Lew Wallace, The Kentucky Encyclopedia (1992)