The great U.S. historian, John Hope Franklin, died yesterday at a Duke University hospital. He was a pioneering scholar and civil rights leader. He did pathbreaking work as one of the leading scholars working on this history of African Americans and U.S. racial oppression, scholarship building on the earlier work of scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois. His most famous and widely influential book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, was an essential text for many of us who have become researchers in this area and is still widely read and used in its numerous editions. Franklin was professor emeritus at Duke, which put out an obituary summarizing his great contributions to this country, to all Americans of all backgrounds.
This summary of his life is candid about the discrimination Duke inflicted on him, indeed as southern libraries and universities often did:
At the time From Slavery to Freedom was published, there were few scholars working in African-American history and the books that had been published were not highly regarded by academics. To write it, he first had to give himself a course in African-American history, then spend months struggling to complete the research in segregated libraries and archives – including Duke’s, where he could not use the bathroom.
Yet Franklin persevered:
Franklin worked on the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case, joined protestors in a 1965 march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. and headed President Clinton’s 1997 national advisory board on race.
My only personal contact with Dr. Franklin was when he asked me to testify before President Clinton’s 1997 task force on race, at its stormy Denver, Colorado session. He was chair of the advisory board for this effort, called One America: The President’s Initiative on Race. As chair of that board, he was still strong as a civil rights leader, though somewhat frail in body. The Duke obituary adds this further recollection:
In January 2005, he spoke at Duke at the celebration of his 90th birthday, displaying the fire that motivated him throughout his long life. While others at the event talked about the past and reminisced about his accomplishments, Franklin focused squarely on the future. He described the event, held the same day as President George W. Bush’s second inauguration, as a “counter-inaugural” … He recounted some of the historical inequalities in the United States and recalled some of his own experiences with racism. He said, for example, that the evening before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, a woman at his club in Washington, D.C., asked him to get her coat. Around the same time, a man at a hotel handed Franklin his car keys and told him to get his car. “I patiently explained to him that I was a guest in the hotel, as I presumed he was, and I had no idea where his automobile was.
Even as a leading scholar and civil rights leader, well into his 80s, Franklin still faced the ugly reality of U.S. racism in his everyday life.
The grandson of a slave, Franklin’s work was informed by his first-hand experience with injustices of racism — not just in Rentiesville, Okla., the small black community where he was born on Jan. 2, 1915, but throughout his life. . . . The realities of racism hit Franklin at an early age. He has said he vividly remembers the humiliating experience of being put off the train with his mother because she refused to move to a segregated compartment for a six-mile trip to the next town. He was 6.
He survived the Tulsa race riot (actually a white pogrom in which at least 300 black citizens were killed by whites) of 1921. Unable to attend the Jim Crowed University of Oklahoma, he went to Fisk University, to study law but was convinced to study history by a white history professor there. That professor loaned him the money to begin study at Harvard, where he got his Ph.D. degree in 1941.
He began his career as an instructor at Fisk in 1936 and taught at St. Augustine’s and North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), both historically black colleges. . . . Then in 1947, he took a post as professor at Howard University, where, in the early 1950s, he traveled from Washington to Thurgood Marshall’s law office to help prepare the brief that led to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1956 he became chairman of the all-white history department at Brooklyn College. Despite his position, he had to visit 35 real estate agents before he was able to buy a house for his young family and no New York bank would loan him the money. . . . He spent 16 years at the University of Chicago, coming to Duke in 1982. He retired from the history department in 1985, then spent seven years as professor of legal history at the Duke Law School.
The Duke obituary adds this summary of his extraordinary research work:
Franklin was a prolific writer, with books including The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South, The Free Negro in North Carolina, George Washington Williams: A Biography and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North. He also has edited many works, including a book about his father called My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, with his son, John Whittington Franklin. … He received more than 130 honorary degrees, and served as president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the American Studies Association, the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association.
Recently Franklin wrote his Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (2005) and you can hear an interview with him about it at this Duke site.
We will miss him greatly.