A pioneer African American historian, John Hope Franklin (born 1915) was a highly respected scholar who wrote on many aspects of American history.
John Hope Franklin, the son of Buck and Mollie (Parker) Franklin, was born on January 2, 1915, in the small predominantly African American village of Rentiesville, Oklahoma. His father was a lawyer and his mother an elementary school teacher. Thanks to his mother, Franklin received his first taste of education when he was three years old. "Since there were no day-care centers in the village where we lived, she had no alternative to taking me to school and seating me in the back where she could keep an eye on me," Franklin recalled. When he was about five his mother noticed that he was no longer scribbling on the sheet of paper she gave him, but writing words and sentences.
After studying in the public schools of Rentiesville and Tulsa, he enrolled at Fisk University, intending to prepare himself for a career in law. But under the influence of a stimulating history professor, Theodore S. Currier, he changed to a history major. With Currier's strong encouragement, Franklin pursued graduate work at Harvard University, earning a doctorate in 1941. "The course of study was satisfactory but far from extraordinary," he commented in 1988. "Mark Hopkins was seldom on the other end of the log, and one had to fend for himself as best he could." His doctoral dissertation evolved into his first book, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860 (1943).
The Past Came First
Throughout his academic career John Hope Franklin made his first priority the study and teaching of history. Despite several opportunities to leave the classroom, he had "no difficulty in saying to anyone who raised the matter that I was not interested in deanships, university presidencies, or ambassadorships." This strong commitment to scholarship and teaching began with his first jobs after Harvard. At St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, North Carolina (1939-1943), and North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham (1943-1947), he managed to pursue extensive scholarly research while at the same time carrying the heavy teaching load characteristic of small liberal arts colleges. In 1947 he published his second book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. By the early 1990s in its seventh edition (with Franklin's former student Alfred A. Moss, Jr., as co-author), From Slavery to Freedom has been both a seminal work of scholarship helping to define the emerging field of African American history and a remarkably successful textbook.
Despite the efforts of both admirers and critics, Franklin resisted being characterized as an African American who wrote solely on African American topics. Likewise, he did not want others to perceive him as a scholar who wished to present an African American view of the South, slavery, or Reconstruction. "The tragedy," Franklin told a New York Times Book Review writer in 1990, is that black scholars so often have their specialties forced on them. My specialty is the history of the South, and that means I teach the history of blacks and whites."
He followed up From Slavery to Freedom with a provocative study of the souls of white folk, The Militant South, 1800-1860 (1956), a book that described the Old South as distinctively touchy, honor-conscious, and militaristic. He then turned to a pressing national issue. Writing in 1961 amid the commemoration of the centennial of the Civil War, Franklin wrote an influential interpretative essay (Reconstruction: After the Civil War) that challenged the then widely-held view that the Civil War had ended in an era of "national disgrace. "The book gave Franklin national prominence as one of the leading revisionists of Reconstruction historiography. Perhaps surprisingly, Franklin, in a 1995 New York Times Magazine interview, articulated an affection for the South. "Blacks, even when they left the South, didn't stop having affection for it. They just couldn't make it there. Then they found the North had its problems too, so you look for a place of real ease and contentment where you could live as a civilized human being. That's the South. It's more congenial; the pace is better; the races get along better. It's a sense of place. It's home." Nonetheless, Franklin left that place of ease for academic rigor.
Opportunity in the North
Franklin moved in 1947 from North Carolina College to Howard University, where he taught until 1956. When he accepted an appointment as chairman of the history department at Brooklyn College, the event was heralded on the front page of The New York Times: no African American historian had ever before held a full-time position in a predominantly white university. In 1964, shortly after publishing his fifth book, The Emancipation Proclamation, he was invited to join the history faculty at the University of Chicago.
A major consideration "in the move to Chicago was the opportunity to teach graduate students," said Franklin. "I realized that with all my frantic efforts at research and writing I would never be able to write on all the subjects in which I was deeply interested." In training a new generation of scholars, Franklin extended "immeasurably" his own "sense of accomplishment." In 18 years at the University of Chicago he supervised some thirty doctoral dissertations.
During the Chicago years Franklin was repeatedly honored by his scholarly colleagues, serving as president of the Southern Historical Association (1970), the Organization of American History (1975), Phi Beta Kappa (1973-1976), and the American Historical Association (1979). He was selected as the Jefferson Lecturer of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1976 (publishing a revised version of his three lectures as Racial Equality in America). At the University of Chicago itself he served four years as chairman of the history department and was appointed John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor in 1969.
He continued to be a prolific scholar, co-authoring a survey history of the United States (Land of the Free) and an illustrated history of African Americans. He edited several important works, including Reminiscences of an Active: The Autobiography of John R. Lynch and (with August Meier) Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (1982). In addition, he wrote another well-received monograph, A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North (1976). He was undeterred even by retirement, first from the University of Chicago in 1982 and then in 1985 from the James B. Duke Professorship at Duke University. He completed his biography of the 19th-century African American scholar George Washington Williams in 1985; continued his study of runaway slaves; and revised From slavery to Freedom. In 1992 he wrote The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-First Century, which was built on W.E.B. DuBois' prophesy that the problems of the 20th century would involve racial issues. In addition, he taught at the Duke University Law School from 1985 to 1992. In 1993 he was awarded the Charles Frankel Prize by President Bill Clinton for contributing to public understanding of the humanities. Two years later, Clinton honored Franklin again with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Race Relations Point Man
Recognition by Clinton was not limited to medals. In June 1997, Clinton appointed Franklin to chair a panel of eight to oversee a year-long initiative on race relations. At the time of his appointment, Franklin promised not to mince words in his talks with Clinton. "I think I'm valuable only to the extent that I am honest and candid," he told a writer for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
Over the course of his long academic career, Franklin was a visiting professor at many universities, including Cambridge University; twice held Guggenheim fellowships; and received honorary degrees from more than ninety colleges and universities.
A man of strong political ideals, Franklin once wrote, "I could not have avoided being a social activist even if I had wanted to." He played an important role in the historical research involved in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, served as an informal adviser to Jesse Jackson, and actively campaigned against the confirmation of the appointment of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. At the same time he insisted that scholarship and politics must be kept separate and warned his fellow historians against the danger of allowing their concern with the "urgent matters of their own time" to distort their "view of an earlier period."
Despite his enviable march through the halls of academia, or perhaps because of it, Franklin still saw room for much improvement in U.S. race relations at the end of the twentieth century. "I'd be afraid to raise a black child in America today, not merely because of what would happen to him in the black community but in the white community too," he told The New York Times Magazine.
Franklin married his college classmate, the former Aurelia Whittington. They had one son, John Whittington, who became a program officer at the Smithsonian Institute. Franklin also had a foster son, Bouna Ndiaye, a native of Senegal. In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Franklin was an avid cultivator of orchids, including the officially registered hybrid phalaenopsis, John Hope Franklin.
Further Reading on John Hope Franklin
In addition to Franklin's writing listed in the text see John Hope Franklin, "A Life of Learning," American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper, No. 4; "Revising the Old South," U.S. News and World Report (September 17, 1990); "Fifty Years of Exploring the Past: The Unfinished History of John Hope Franklin," Ebony (February 1990); Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., The Facts of Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of John Hope Franklin (1991).
Additional Biography Sources
Applebome, Peter, "Keeping Tabs On Jim Crow: John Hope Franklin," The New York Times Magazine, April 23, 1995, p. 34.
Pomerantz, Gary M., "John Hope Franklin: Scholar With A Mission," The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 13, 1997, pp. A10.