The scholar who told—and lived—the African-American story
John Hope Franklin
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When John Hope Franklin was about 6, he and his mother were kicked off a train in Oklahoma after Mrs. Franklin refused to enter an overcrowded, segregated car. Trudging through the woods to get home, she stopped her son’s tears by exhorting him to “prove you’re as good as any of them.” Franklin, who died last week at 94, certainly did that. His 1947 volume From Slavery to Freedom, which sold 3.5 million copies, established him as the nation’s leading scholar of the African-American experience. Franklin was a historian who made history himself with a series of groundbreaking academic appointments, as well as with his work during some of the key moments in the civil-rights movement.
“Franklin’s celebrated life was peppered with discrimination,” said the Charlotte, N.C., Observer. He was the son of Buck Franklin, one of Oklahoma’s first black lawyers, “who was once thrown out of a courtroom by a judge because of his race.” Growing up in Tulsa, the young John Hope witnessed the brutal 1921 race riots that destroyed part of the city, including the law office of his father, who for a while had to work out of a tent. Refused admission to the University of Oklahoma, in 1935 he graduated magna cum laude from historically black Fisk University, and was accepted to Harvard University’s graduate program in history. In the depths of the Depression, though, he could not afford the tuition. But his mentor at Fisk, professor Ted Currier, “went to the bank and borrowed $500 for his promising student. The next day, Franklin was on his way to Cambridge”—where he was one of the few black doctoral candidates on campus.
Franklin earned his Ph.D. in 1941, said The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But “holding a degree from a prestigious university didn’t shield him from racial insults.” When Franklin returned to the South to teach at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., “he caused a stir by walking into the whites-only state archives.” Soon he was given a room of his own, “safely segregated from other scholars,” and told not to speak with white librarians. “It was one of many such slights over the years.” As president of the Southern Historical Association, for example, “he organized a convention in Memphis, but declined to attend because he couldn’t stay in the segregated headquarters hotel.” But he persevered, teaching and eventually publishing some 20 books. They included The Militant South (1956), about “the region’s martial spirit and appetite for violence,” and The Emancipation Proclamation (1963), which explored how Abraham Lincoln came to develop that historic document and its impact on the Civil War and on later generations.
His masterwork was From Slavery to Freedom, said the London Daily Telegraph. Drawing on vast stores of documentary evidence across 500 years, “the book explored the contribution African-Americans had made to the nation from the time of its foundation, revealing that black patriots had fought at Lexington and Concord, accompanied George Washington across the Delaware, and crossed to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark.” Franklin also argued that American history was “not comprehensible without an understanding that slavery was part of its economic dynamism.” Translated into many languages, From Slavery to Freedom became an indispensable text in black-studies classes. For its author, it represented a voyage of self-discovery. “I had seen it all,” Franklin later said, “and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence.”
“Franklin often argued that historians have an important role in shaping policy,” said The New York Times. “He put that position into practice when he worked with Thurgood Marshall’s team of lawyers in their effort to strike down segregation in the landmark 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education.” Franklin also participated in the famous 1965 Selma march with Martin Luther King Jr.; testified against the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork in 1987, because he viewed Bork as a foe of civil rights; and in 1997 headed Bill Clinton’s Advisory Board to the President’s Initiative on Race. “One might argue that the historian is the conscience of the nation,” he reasoned, “if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture conscience.” But Franklin warned against mixing activism and scholarship; academics, he said, should “make it clear which activity they are engaging in at any given time.”
With his thin moustache and elegant manners, Franklin cut a distinguished figure, said The Boston Globe. “He was noted for his Southern graciousness and his talent for friendship (he sent out 600 Christmas cards annually).” He received many honors, including some 130 honorary degrees and, in 1995, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But Franklin’s outward ease masked a tough resolve. He had an “Old Testament righteousness that could make him a formidable figure in debate,” and in his later years he became pessimistic about the country’s racial progress. Shortly before the Medal of Freedom ceremony, a white woman at a Washington club, thinking him an attendant, told him to retrieve her coat. “Yes, we’ve come some distance,” he reflected in 2006. “But we’ve got so much further to go.”
Yet Franklin’s own life story demonstrated how far the nation had come, said the London Independent. “His career, inevitably, was a catalogue of firsts.” At Brooklyn College in 1956 Franklin became “the first black head of a department at a predominantly white university.” In 1967, he became the first black History Department chairman at the University of Chicago. Franklin was also the American Historical Association’s first black president. “But no first gave him greater joy than the one consummated on Nov. 4, 2008, with the election of Barack Obama as the country’s first black president.” It was, he said, “the closest thing to a peaceful revolution in our entire history.”
Franklin’s wife of 59 years, Aurelia Whittington Franklin, died in 1999. He is survived by his son, John, a program manager at the Smithsonian Institution.
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