John Hope Franklin - The Historian Who Lived What He Taught

John Hope Franklin, historian of race in America.
John Hope Franklin, historian of race in America. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Walter Dellinger
Thursday, March 26, 2009

John Hope Franklin, who died yesterday at 94, was one of the most remarkable Americans of the 20th century. He was the master of the great American story of that century, the story of race. John Hope wrote it, he taught it, and he lived it.

For seven years, he and I taught constitutional history together at Duke, and I never ceased to marvel at how he managed both to embody this history and yet recount it with an extraordinarily candid honesty. Our students would fall into the deepest hush while he recounted his experiences researching his epic 1947 work, "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans" (reprinted scores of times since, and still widely read), in segregated libraries at Southern universities and Southern state libraries. He would describe the various Jim Crow rules he was required to navigate -- a separate table from white patrons, a prohibition on being waited on by white female librarians and similar indignities -- without a trace of bitterness.

After the acclaim for "From Slavery to Freedom" and his other writings brought him a place on the Howard University faculty while he was still in his 30s, John Hope thought he had achieved the final academic appointment of his life. He believed that a scholar who was a man of color could aspire to teach nowhere else. History proved him wrong. In 1956, when Brooklyn College made him the first African American to be appointed to chair an academic department at a predominantly white institution, the New York Times reported the story on its front page.

John Hope never compromised on principle. Well, almost never. He told and retold the story of a decision he made as a young teenager in Tulsa to see a performance by a star of the Metropolitan Opera. His parents strongly disapproved of his decision, since it entailed sitting in a segregated balcony. He later wrote, "I am not altogether proud of going to Convention Hall, and there are times, even now, while enjoying a symphony or an opera, when I reproach myself for having yielded to the indignity of racial segregation."

He worked on a crucial brief for Brown v. Board of Education, he marched in Selma, he lectured all over the world and he taught all of America to see through his uncompromising eye. But it was not just what he did but how he did it that marked his greatness. He understood that the public good was not merely a set of substantive outcomes; it is also defined by how we go about reconciling our competing visions of that public good. It is about how we view one another when we peer across the great divides of policy, preference, political party and personhood. John Hope Franklin looked at those who opposed him and saw fellow human beings.

He was no Pollyanna. He knew, as my son Drew once wrote, that we are still always crossing that bridge from Selma to Montgomery. But John Hope always looked at the state trooper blocking the bridge, the figure standing in the way of freedom, and saw there another child of God. He knew, as Charles L. Black Jr. said, that the tragedy of Southern race relations was drawn from that "prima materia of all tragedy: the failure to recognize kinship."

When Barack Obama emerged as a possible candidate for president, I asked John Hope how historic it would be if Obama won his party's nomination. He replied that the historical significance of such a thing was beyond measure. Obama's nomination, he said, "would counter one of the most dominant narratives of the past 350 years on this continent." Then he added the thought that it could be even more historically and culturally important "to have that family as the first family than to have Obama as president."

When the roll was called in Denver and the Democratic convention, by acclamation, made Obama its nominee for president, I stepped outside and called John Hope. I asked him the question so many of us -- particularly those of us from the South -- have now asked each other: Did you ever think you would live to see this day? In his resonant baritone, John Hope responded, "Well, I never expected to live more than 90 years. But, no, even if I had, I still would not have thought that would be long enough to see this happen." That he did live into this year seems a special gift from God.

The writer is a lawyer in Washington.

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