Thursday, March 26, 2009
Among scholars of the American past, John Hope Franklin, who died Wednesday at 94, was a rarity: He not only studied history; he made it. This should not have been necessary. But the culture into which Mr. Franklin was born in 1915 was distorted by racial discrimination. As a young African American pursuing a Harvard doctorate in history, he had to overcome not only the normal rigors of academia, but also racial insults -- the most stinging of which might have been the fact that American history, as it had been written until then, basically omitted people of color. And so, at a time when it took courage for him to visit certain libraries, Mr. Franklin set out to correct the record. "My challenge," Mr. Franklin once said, "was to weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly."
His magisterial study of the American black experience, "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans," was a revelation when it appeared in 1947 -- to be followed by books and articles on Reconstruction, the martial culture of the antebellum South, runaway slaves and many other subjects. Each one is a model of graceful prose, meticulously documented and free of bias or cant. The quality of Mr. Franklin's writings made him the first black chairman of a history department at a predominantly white institution, Brooklyn College, in 1956. Later came appointments at the University of Chicago and Duke, and teaching assignments at Howard and Cambridge universities and elsewhere. Along the way he assisted Thurgood Marshall's legal team in Brown v. Board of Education, served in government and accumulated more academic honors than we have space to mention. In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Ever the mild-mannered academic, Mr. Franklin tended orchids at his Durham, N.C., home. But he never lost his outrage at the injustice he and other blacks had experienced. Toward the end of his life, he spoke of the need for the United States to apologize for the historical wrongs of slavery and segregation and compensate the victims. "I don't see any reason why I should get over that kind of exploitation," he told an interviewer. Yet he also called on young African Americans to make the most of their opportunities, notwithstanding residual racism. Last year, as then-candidate Barack Obama neared the presidency, Mr. Franklin found himself swept up in the excitement of a campaign that brought together whites and blacks "like this is a natural thing," as he put it in an interview with The Post. In his long and extraordinarily productive life, Mr. Franklin himself did much to bring about new attitudes and new possibilities. By changing his country's perception of itself, Mr. Franklin changed his country.