John Hope Franklin: an appreciation

John Hope Franklin, the author of academic and popular works of African American history over six decades, passed away last week at the age of 94. More than any other U.S. scholar, he advanced the study and teaching of African American history in U.S. universities in the second half of the 20th century.

Born in Oklahoma in 1915, Franklin graduated from the segregated Booker T. Washington High School and then from Fisk University, a Black college, in 1935. Thanks to his own remarkable abilities and the work of a generation of pioneering scholars, especially W.E.B. DuBois, he earned a Ph.D. in history at Harvard University (1941), suffering many indignities at segregated research facilities as he began his lifelong journey to study African American history and “weave” it into the larger narrative of U.S. history. In 1947, he published “From Slavery to Freedom,” a general history of African Americans which has gone through eight editions and sold over 3 million copies worldwide.

In many respects Franklin’s life mirrored the struggles and achievements of the African American people, although he was spared many of the setbacks of recent decades. From 1947 to 1956, he taught at Howard University, the most prestigious Black university in the U.S. In the early 1950s he joined other African American scholars in providing research assistance to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund as it developed the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared school segregation to be unconstitutional.

In 1956, a year after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he went to Brooklyn College, a free-tuition, integrated public college in New York, to become the chair of its all-white history department — the first African American to hold the chair of any history department outside of historically African American universities, even though he faced discrimination as he sought to purchase a home in New York.

Franklin was known for his kindness and generosity to colleagues and especially students of all backgrounds. He also was a consistent defender of civil liberties. David Levering Lewis, a former colleague of mine at Rutgers and the winner of two Pulitzer prizes for his biography of DuBois, remembered at his retirement that Franklin had defended DuBois’s right to think and write as he saw fit, the essence of academic and intellectual freedom, in the 1950s, at a time when most figures in the arts, sciences and other professions were either hailing or remaining silent about the denial of such freedoms to advocates of Marxism, communism, or any point of view which could be linked to Marxism and communism.

In 1964, the year that the most important civil rights law of the 20th century was enacted, Franklin moved to the elite University of Chicago, where he later became department chair.

As the civil rights movement and scholarship on the experience of African Americans grew and reinforced one another, Franklin served as president of the American Studies Association (1967), the Southern Historical Association (1970), the Organization of American Historians (1975) and the American Historical Association (1979). In 1980, the Carter administration appointed him to the United States delegation to the UNESCO General Conference in Belgrade, in what was then socialist Yugoslavia. In 1995, the Clinton administration awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. government.

To use an analogy that I think he would have liked, John Hope Franklin was a kind of Jackie Robinson among U.S. historians, the first in so many areas to break down barriers of segregation and discrimination. There were other and in some instances greater African American intellectuals and scholars (W.E.B. DuBois most of all), as there had been greater baseball players in the Negro leagues than Robinson, but they did not gain the access he gained to the “mainstream” scholarship, government and mass media.

Like Robinson, Franklin faced and prevailed over countless indignities and showed that scholarship like sports teams and society as a whole would be better and more productive for all when there was integration and inclusion.

The honors mounted over the years — membership on presidential commissions, a research center named after him at Duke University, where he spent his final years before formal retirement and then continued to be active as a professor emeritus. But Franklin was never a token for a conservative or liberal establishment. He continued to write and lecture for the rest of his life, to seek to educate Americans and people everywhere to the history of African Americans and all other Americans, a history that he struggled to see fully merged through racial equality.

Last year he endorsed Barack Obama for the presidency and lived to see Obama’s election. The finest tribute to John Hope Franklin would be to read as many of his accessible and insightful works of history as possible. Americans of all ethnicities will learn much about both African Americans and themselves.

----- Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.