Dr. John Hope Franklin, a “scholar’s scholar,” and social activist has died. The Duke University historian who chronicled the South and the Black experience succumbed to heart failure at the university’s hospital yesterday. He was 94.
Generations of historians and college students drew from his seminal work “From Slavery to Freedom,” a masterful account of the contributions and significance of African Americans to American history. The text continues to be required reading on college campuses. It remains one of the most important contributions to the study of the nation’s history and culture. Dr. Franklin’s research also supported the work of NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 that resulted in the United States Supreme Court declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
Dr. Franklin was among a handful of Black historians, others being W.E.B DuBois, Benjamin Quarles, Lerone Bennett, and Carter G. Woodson, who offered a different and more representative account of African Americans in the development of the United States. Their research challenged the standing paradigm that suggested slavery was the defining characteristic of the Black experience and that the consequence of the “peculiar institution” was a people who offered little of value to the nation. To the contrary, Franklin and his colleagues worked to uncover the hidden truths of America and illustrate how the country’s development not only benefited from the input of Blacks but the transformative works of its initially enslaved class largely made its success possible.
John Hope Franklin not only wrote about history, he made it along the way. He was the first Black to serve as the chair of an academic department at a predominantly white university in 1956 when he was at Brooklyn College. He was the first Black professor to hold an endowed chair at Duke University. Franklin also served as the first Black president of the American Historical Society. He was also the recipient of over 100 honorary degrees. His achievements earned him the NAACP’s Spingarn Award, the civil rights organization’s most prestigious award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In 1985, his work on historian George Washington Williams was honored with a Clarence Holte Literary Award and was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize.
Born in Rentiesville, Oklahoma, an all-Black town, Franklin was an avid reader at an early age. His family lost all of its possessions in the Tulsa race riot of 1921. Later in life, Franklin would play an important role in Oklahoma’s efforts to redress the Tulsa incident. He attended Fisk University and it was on the historically Black college campus that he became enamored with the field of history. It was at Fisk that he also met his wife of 58 years, Aurelia Whittington, who passed away in 1999. At Fisk, a white history professor who had piqued Franklin’s interest in the field helped make it possible to send him to Harvard University for his graduate studies. He received his doctorate in 1943 and his thesis became his first book “The First Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860.” In 1947, Franklin finished his landmark text “From Slavery to Freedom” and accepted a teaching position at Howard University.
Over the course of his remarkable life, Franklin taught at Duke, Harvard and the University of Chicago, as well as Cambridge University in England. Among his published works is “The Emancipation Proclamation,” “Reconstruction after the Civil War,” and “The Militant South, 1860-1861.”