Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dr. John Hope Franklin - Black Historian

The world mourns the passing of Dr. John Hope Franklin of North Carolina. By most accounts, he is the greatest historian of African American history.

This is Dr. Franklin's biography on the Duke University website, where he was the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History:

John Hope Franklin was the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History, and for seven years was Professor of Legal History in the Law School at Duke University. He was a native of Oklahoma and a graduate of Fisk University. He received the A.M. and Ph.D. degrees in history from Harvard University. He has taught at a number of institutions, including Fisk University, St. Augustine's College, North Carolina Central University, and Howard University. In 1956 he went to Brooklyn College as Chairman of the Department of History; and in 1964, he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, serving as Chairman of the Department of History from 1967 to 1970. At Chicago, he was the John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor from 1969 to 1982, when he became Professor Emeritus.

Professor Franklin's numerous publications include The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South, The Free Negro in North Carolina, Reconstruction After the Civil War, and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Ante-bellum North. Perhaps his best known book is From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, now in its seventh edition. His Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities for 1976 was published in 1985 and received the Clarence L. Holte Literary Prize for that year. In 1990, a collection of essays covering a teaching and writing career of fifty years, was published under the title, Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988. In 1993, he published The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-first Century. Professor Franklin's most recent book, My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, is an autobiography of his father that he edited with his son, John Whittington Franklin. His current research deals with "Dissidents on the Plantation: Runaway Slaves."

Professor Franklin was active in numerous professional and education organizations. For many years he served on the editorial board of the Journal of Negro History. He also served as President of the following organizations: The American Studies Association (1967), the Southern Historical Association (1970), the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa (1973-76), the Organization of American Historians (1975), and the American Historical Association (1979). He has been a member of the Board of Trustees of Fisk University, the Chicago Public Library, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.

Professor Franklin served on many national commissions and delegations, including the National Council on the Humanities, from which he resigned in 1979, when the President appointed him to the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. He also served on the President's Advisory Commission on Ambassadorial Appointments. In September and October of 1980, he was a United States delegate to the 21st General Conference of UNESCO. Among many other foreign assignments, Dr. Franklin served as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University, Consultant on American Education in the Soviet Union, Fulbright Professor in Australia, and Lecturer in American History in the People's Republic of China.

Professor Franklin was the recipient of many honors. In 1978, Who's Who in America selected Dr. Franklin as one of eight Americans who has made significant contributions to society. In the same year, he was elected to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. He also received the Jefferson Medal for 1984, awarded by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. In 1989, he was the first recipient of the Cleanth Brooks Medal of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and in 1990 received the Encyclopedia Britannica Gold Medal for the Dissemination of Knowledge. In 1993, Dr. Franklin received the Charles Frankel Prize for contributions to the humanities, and in 1994, the Cosmos Club Award and the Trumpet Award from Turner Broadcasting Corporation. In 1995, he received the first W.E.B. DuBois Award from the Fisk University Alumni Association, the Organization of American Historians' Award for Outstanding Achievement, the Alpha Phi Alpha Award of Merit, the NAACP's Spingarn Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1996, Professor Franklin was elected to the Oklahoma Historians Hall of Frame and in 1997 he received the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award. In addition to his many awards, Dr. Franklin has received honorary degrees from more than one hundred colleges and universities.

Professor Franklin has been extensively written about in various articles and books. Most recently he was the subject of the film First Person Singular: John Hope Franklin. Produced by Lives and Legacies Films, the documentary was featured on PBS in June 1997.

Professor Franklin died of congestive heart failure at Duke Hospital on the morning of March 25th, 2009. He is survived by his son, John Whittington Franklin, daughter-in-law Karen Roberts Franklin, sister-in-law Bertha W. Gibbs, cousin Grant Franklin Sr., a host of nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews, other family members, many generations of students and friends. There will be a celebration of his life and of his late wife Aurelia Franklin at 11 a.m. June 11 in Duke Chapel in honor of their 69th wedding anniversary.

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What follows is the article on the life of Dr. Franklin:

John Hope Franklin winced when people called him America’s greatest black historian, as many did. It would be more fitting to call him the greatest historian of black America.

In more than 70 years of scholarship, he documented the African-American experience as no one had done before — a body of work that earned him more than 100 honorary degrees, making him perhaps the most decorated academician of his time.

Franklin, 94, died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C. He was best known as the author of the groundbreaking chronicle, “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans.”

Published in 1947, the book was updated eight times and sold more than 3 million copies. But that was only his most visible achievement.

Starting in 1936 at Fisk University in Nashville, Franklin published hundreds of academic articles and 16 books about African-American and Southern history before ending his career as a professor at Duke. He was part of a generation of historians, including C. Vann Woodward and David Potter, who challenged the racial stereotyping and Lost Cause sentimentality that had dominated the study of Southern history.

Unlike earlier historians, for instance, Franklin viewed the Civil War as more of a liberation than a defeat for the region. “It had been delivered from the domination of an institution that had stifled its economic development and rendered completely ineffective its intellectual life,” he wrote.

Franklin challenged prevailing thought outside the ivy walls as well. Early in his career, he helped research the lawsuit that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP took to the Supreme Court in 1954 to overturn public school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education.

Decades later, he went to Capitol Hill to testify against the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork, whom he saw as an enemy of civil rights. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton appointed Franklin chairman of his national commission on race relations.

Franklin’s activism was rooted in the indignities of his personal experience.

Born in 1915 in Oklahoma, Franklin was the son of a lawyer and a schoolteacher who named him John Hope after the president of Atlanta University. The family was moving to Tulsa in 1921 when one of the worst race riots in American history broke out and Mr. Franklin’s law office was burned down. He worked out of a tent for months.

Franklin planned to follow his father into law when he went away to college at Fisk. Instead, he fell under the sway of a white history professor, Theodore Currier, who inspired him to change disciplines and enroll at Harvard, then loaned him $500 when he was accepted. He earned his doctorate there in 1941.

Holding a degree from a prestigious university didn’t shield Franklin from racial insults.

When he returned south to teach at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., he caused a stir by walking into the whites-only state archives. It had never occurred to anyone there that a black scholar might want to use the archives.

Franklin was given a room of his own to work in, safely segregated from the other scholars.

It was one of many such slights over the years. After Pearl Harbor, Franklin attempted to volunteer for a Navy desk job but was turned down because of his skin color. As president of the Southern Historical Association, he organized a convention in Memphis but declined to attend because he couldn’t stay in the segregated headquarters hotel.

When he was named history chairman at Brooklyn College — the first black man to head a history department at a major, predominantly white college — scores of real estate agents refused to show houses to him and his wife.

Despite such episodes, Franklin’s work remained remarkably free of anger or ideology. “He has never bowed to the pressure of fashions and the propaganda of black nationalism,” Woodward, the eminent historian of the South, said in 1991.

Franklin had published only one book when editor Alfred Knopf approached him in the 1940s about writing a history of Negro Americans. Franklin didn’t want to do it at first; the subject seemed too broad. But he acquiesced, in part because no comprehensive history existed.

The result, “From Slavery to Freedom,” was “the story of the strivings of the nameless millions who have sought adjustment in a new and sometimes hostile world,” as Franklin put it in the preface.

Franklin wrote and edited many other books during a career that took him from St. Augustine’s to North Carolina Central (1943) to Howard University (1947) to Brooklyn College (1956) to the University of Chicago (1964). One of the best received works, “The Militant South” (1956), seemed particularly relevant; it explored the antebellum roots of the region’s martial spirit and appetite for violence, which were again rearing their heads during the civil rights struggle.

After years of teaching in the North, Franklin moved back South in 1980 and eventually took professorships in Duke’s history and law departments. The move suited him. Franklin cut a distinguished figure, with his erect 6-foot frame, thin mustache and courtly manners, and he found the gentler pace of Southern life more to his liking.

“The South, as a place, is as attractive to blacks as it is to whites,” he explained in 1995. “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 can live as a civilized human being. That’s the South…. It’s home.”

Franklin lived in Durham with his former college sweetheart and wife of 59 years, Aurelia, a librarian who died in 1999. Their only child, John W. Franklin, became a program director at the Smithsonian Institution.

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plez sez: i am a bit of a history buff and join the world in mourning the loss of this country's greatest historian of Black's in America. like me, Dr. Franklin wasn't born in the south, but we both had an affinity as this being the natural home for Black Americans.

i join the world in thanking dr. franklin in shining a light on the accomplishments and facts of our involvement in the building of America.

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Read the Dr. Franklin's biography here.

Read the article about the life and times of Dr. John Hope Franklin.

Read the article about the passing of Dr. John Hope Franklin.

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