John Hope Franklin, 1915-2009
Historian Helped Blaze a Civil Rights Path
Thursday, March 26, 2009
John Hope Franklin, one of the most prolific and well-respected chroniclers of America's torturous racial odyssey, died of congestive heart failure yesterday at the age of 94 in a Durham, N.C., hospital.
It was more than Franklin's voluminous writings that cemented his reputation among academics, politicians and civil rights figures as an inestimable historian. It was the reality that Franklin, himself a black man, had seen racial horrors up close and thus was able to give his academic work a stinging ballast. Franklin was a young boy when his family lost everything in the Tulsa race riot of 1921. The violence was precipitated by reports that a black youth assaulted a white teenage girl in a downtown elevator. In the end more than 40 people died, mostly blacks, although some reports put the death total much higher.
Franklin was among the first black scholars to earn prominent posts at America's top -- and predominantly white -- universities. His research and his personal success helped pave the way both for other blacks and for the field of black studies, which began to blossom on American campuses in the '60s.
In time, a second generation of eminent black scholars -- Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr., Georgetown's Michael Eric Dyson and Princeton's Cornel West -- would follow Franklin to the heights of America's most illustrious schools.
"He gave us a common language," Gates, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, said yesterday. "As the author of a seminal textbook, 'From Slavery to Freedom,' Franklin gave us young black scholars a common language to speak to each other. He had invented a genre out of whole cloth."
Gates, a former recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant," for years was curious as to who had recommended him. He attended a dinner once with Franklin, and Franklin confided that he had been the one to recommend Gates. "And I cried at the table we were sitting at. A lot of us called John Hope 'the Prince.' He had such a regal bearing. We're all the children of John Hope."
Over the course of his career, Franklin taught at Duke, Harvard and the University of Chicago, and would regale friends with the joy he had teaching at Cambridge University in England. Among his many honors was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which President Bill Clinton bestowed upon him in 1995.
Franklin's life became so celebrated in his later years, and his testimony at congressional hearings so frequent, that he seemed almost a fictional figure, a combination of Booker T. Washington and Mark Twain. "I could not have avoided being a social activist even if I had wanted to," Franklin once said.
Among Franklin's more popular works, many of which remain constants on college reading lists, are "From Slavery to Freedom" (with Alfred Moss Jr.), "The Emancipation Proclamation," "Reconstruction After the Civil War," "A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North" and "The Militant South, 1800-1861."
John Hope Franklin was born Jan. 2, 1915, in Rentiesville, Okla. His father, Buck, was a lawyer and the first black judge to sit on an Oklahoma district court.
Franklin attended Fisk University, a historically black college, and received his undergraduate degree in 1935. He earned both a master's and doctorate from Harvard University. From there it was an academic career full of highlights, fellowships, research stints and publications. He was a professor at Howard University from 1947 to 1956. His rising reputation caught the eye of Brooklyn College, which named him chairman of its history department. The appointment was met in the black press with an exuberance usually reserved for black sports figures. Franklin had become the first black person to chair a history department at a college that was not historically black.
But it was in the arena of politics and social activism that Franklin carved a new niche for himself. He provided important historical research to NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer Thurgood Marshall in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case that outlawed school segregation. A new generation of young Americans would witness Franklin's testimony during the unsuccessful nomination of Robert Bork for a seat on the Supreme Court.
In his long life, Franklin rubbed shoulders with many of the most famous figures from the black struggle in 1950s and 1960s America: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and Marshall. He also lived in many of the cities that experienced tumultuous racial clashes. In a 2005 interview with The Washington Post, Franklin recalled living in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1940s: "In the liquor store, you would use the same clerk as the whites, but walking up to the clerk, there was a wall that separated you from the white person. So all you saw was that white person's hand."
In that same interview, Franklin talked about going to Richmond in 1947 to donate blood to his sick brother. Afterward, Franklin boarded a bus and sat in the whites-only section. He told the driver he had just given blood and was too tired to move; the driver threatened arrest. "The blacks were yelling at me: 'Stand your ground!' And you know what? That bus driver drove on off with me sitting right there."
Word of Franklin's death quickly swept throughout the academic community yesterday. Eileen Mackevich, executive director of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, first met Franklin in the late 1960s while doing graduate study in Illinois. "He taught me about race, about life, about communicating with people in respect to their differences," she said. "I am white, but he taught me things I never would have understood about race even though I've lived most of my life in integrated communities."
She continued: "I think a lot of white institutions congratulated themselves for hiring him as the first or second African American historian. But in the end, he made them feel honored to have him because of what he did for the faculty, the students and the neighborhood."
Franklin was married to Aurelia Whittington, his college sweetheart, who died in 1999. They are survived by their son, John Whittington Franklin. Aside from his family and his intellectual pursuits, Franklin also loved orchids. He was devoted to raising them. "There is even an orchid named after him," Gates said.