John Howard Griffin, writer, the second son of four children of John Walter and Lena May (Young) Griffin, was born in Dallas, Texas, on June 16, 1920. His mother was a classically trained pianist who taught for thirty years in the Fort Worth area, and his father was a fine Irish tenor and a radio personality as a younger man. His family influenced Griffin's lifelong love for both music and literature. He attended R. L. Paschal High School in Fort Worth until he left the United States at fifteen in search of a classical education. He entered the Lycée Descartes in Tours, France, completed studies in French and literature at the University of Poitiers, and studied medicine at the École de Médecine. He interned under the direction of Dr. Pierre Fromenty at the Asylum of Tours, conducting experiments in the use of music in therapy for the criminally insane. He received certificates of musical study from the Conservatoire de Fontainebleau, under the tutelage of such renowned teachers as Nadia Boulanger, Robert Casadesus, and Jean Batalla. As a musicologist specializing in medieval music, especially Gregorian chant, Griffin received certificates of study from the Benedictines at the Abbey of Solemnes in France.
Beginning at age nineteen, he worked as a medic in the French Resistance army, evacuating Austrian Jews to the port of St. Nazaire and to safety from the Nazis. He served thirty-nine months in the United States Army Air Corps in the South Seas. He was decorated for bravery and was disabled in the fighting during World War II. He lost his sight from 1946 until 1957. During his twelve years of blindness he wrote five novels (three unpublished) and began a journal in 1950 that had reached twenty volumes at the time of his death.
Griffin's books include The Devil Rides Outside (1952); Nuni (1956); Land of the High Sky (1959), the story of the Llano Estacado region and his only book on Texas; The Church and the Black Man (1969); and A Time to be Human (1977). He published photography in Jacques Maritain: Homage in Words and Pictures (1974) and Twelve Photographic Portraits (1973) and wrote several books on Thomas Merton: A Hidden Wholeness (1970), The Hermitage Journals (1981), and Follow the Ecstasy: Thomas Merton, the Hermitage Years, 1965–1968 (1983). Griffin also wrote syndicated columns for the International News Service and King Features from 1957 until 1960.
He is best remembered for Black Like Me (1961), still in print in 1990 and translated into thirteen languages. For this book Griffin assumed the identity of an itinerant black man by chemically altering his skin color and shaving his head, and visited several racially segregated states during a six-week period of 1959. He initially recounted his adventure in a series of installments printed in the magazine Sepia during 1960; a year later his book version became a best seller. After becoming the target of local protests against Black Like Me, Griffin moved with his family to Mexico, where he remained for about nine months before moving to Fort Worth.
He was a member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers, the Royal Academy of Photographers (Great Britain), and the musical fraternity Phi Mu Alpha. He was converted to Catholicism in 1952 and became a Third Order Carmelite. He was a lifelong Democrat and corecipient with John F. Kennedy of the Pope John XXIII Pacem in Terris Award; he received the Saturday Review Anisfield Wolf Award for Black Like Me (1962), the Christian Culture Series Award, and the National Council of Negro Women's Award. He received two honorary doctorates-LL.D. from Bellarmine University and Litt.D. from Marycrest College. Griffin married a woman from the island of Nuni while he was in the Pacific during World War II but received permission to marry from the Vatican before he married Elizabeth Ann Holland on June 2, 1953, in Mansfield. They had four children. Griffin died in Fort Worth on September 9, 1980.
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Robert Bain, Joseph M. Flora, and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., eds., Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979). Ernest Sharpe, Jr., "The Man Who Changed His Skin," American Heritage 40 (February 1989). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
Dramatists and Novelists
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Griffin, John Howard,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 23, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
January 1, 1995
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: