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Franklin, John Hope 1915–

John Hope Franklin 1915

Historian, educator, writer

At a Glance

Early Years

Seduced by History

War-Time Disillusionment

Legitimizing African American History

Revising Southern History

Civil Rights Activist

Continuing Passion

Selected writings


When John Hope Franklin arrived at the North Carolina state archives in 1939 to conduct research for his Harvard doctoral dissertation, he had to wait three days for a separate room to be prepared to segregate him from white scholars who were working there. The archives director even gave Franklin keys to the manuscript collection so the white assistants would not have to fetch documents for him. But another special office was waiting when Franklin returned for an extended visit in 1967, leading a delegation of his University of Chicago graduate students. This time it was intended as a tribute to one of Americas leading historians. I was something of a hero, he told People magazine. They didnt want me to be inconvenienced.

For more than 50 years Franklin has successfully pursued dual roles as academic scholar and social activist. Author of about a dozen books on various aspects of Southern history, including From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, the first modern survey of the important role blacks played in American history, he has edited nine other books and taught at some of the countrys most prestigious universitieslike Harvard, Cornell, Duke, Chicago, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as at Englands Cambridge University and institutions in Australia and New Zealand. Along the way he has received more than 90 honorary degrees.

Franklin became the first black historian to hold a full-time position at a predominantly white institution when he was appointed chairman of the history department at Brooklyn College in 1956. He was the first African American to deliver a paper before the southern Historical Association, later becoming its president. He also has served as president of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the American Studies Association, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa.

Actively involved in the civil rights struggle, Franklin provided invaluable historical research for Thurgood Marshall and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) legal defense team that won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation case before the Supreme Court in 1954. In addition, he joined Martin Luther King, Jr.s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the denial of black voters rights, and in 1987 he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to Judge Robert Borks nomination to the Supreme Court.

At a Glance

Born January 2, 1915, in Rentiesville, OK; son of Buck Colbert (a lawyer) and Mollie (a schoolteacher; maiden name, Parker) Franklin; married Aurelia E. Whittington (a librarian), June 11, 1940; children: John Whittington. Education: Fisk University, B.A., 1935; Harvard University, M.A., 1936, Ph.D., 1941. Politics: Democrat.

Instructor in history, Fisk University, 193637; professor of history, St. Augustines College, 193943, North Carolina College, 194347, and Howard University, 194756; chairman of Department of History, Brooklyn College, 195664; University of Chicago, professor of American history, 196482, Chairman of Department of History, 196770; John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor, 196982, professor emeritus, 1982; Duke University, James B. Duke Professor of History, 198285, professor emeritus, 1985, professor of legal history at Duke University Law School, beginning 1985. Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions, Cambridge University, England, 196263; visiting professor of history at Harvard and Cornell universities and the universities of Wisconsin, Hawaii, and California at Berkeley.

Member: American Historical Association, Southern Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, American Studies Association, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society, Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History.

Selected awards: Clarence L. Holte Prize, 1986; Britannica Award, 1990; more than 90 honorary degrees.

Addresses: Office Department of History, Duke University, 20BC East Duke Building, Box 90719, Durham, NC 27708; or c/o Louisiana State University Press, P.O. Box 25053, Baton Rouge, La 708945053.

Though a strong believer in the meaningful role that scholarship can play in social change, Franklin has always stressed maintaining objectivity and established standards in all historical research. As he wrote in his preface to Race and History:

Selected Essays 19381988: While a black scholar has a clear responsibility to join in improving the society in which he lives, he must understand the difference between hard-hitting advocacy on the one hand and the highest standards of scholarship on the other. If the scholar engages in both activities he must make it clear which role he is playing at any given time.

Early Years

I could not have avoided being a social activist even if I wanted to, Franklin wrote in his autobiographical essay, John Hope Franklin: A Life of Learning, included in Race and History: Racism and financial distress would plague him throughout his childhood and adolescence.

His parents had moved to the all-black town of Rentiesville, Oklahoma, to resign from the world dominated by white people, after his lawyer father had been expelled from a courtroom solely because of his race. In this town of less than 200, Franklins father worked as a lawyer, justice of the peace, postmaster, farmer, and president of the Rentiesville Trading Company to make ends meet. Born there in 1915 where the quality of life was as low as one can imagine, Franklin grew up without electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, a park, playground, or library.

But as compensation, he was introduced to the world of learning at an early age. With no one to take care of him at home, he spent his early years sitting in the rear of his schoolteacher mothers classroom, learning to read and write by the age of four. At night his father read and wrote at home. Following this example, Franklins constant nighttime reading by the light of a kerosene lamp apparently caused the poor eyesight that led to his first pair of glasses when he was five years old.

My parents would never voluntarily accept segregation, Franklin recalled in A Life of Learning. Still, growing up in segregated Oklahoma, there was no escaping it. On one shopping trip out of town, he and his mother were ejected from a train for sitting in a white coach and had to trudge home on foot through the woods.

In 1921 Franklins father moved to Tulsa alone, hoping to make a better living there at law. The family was to follow in six months. That June, a race riot burned down much of the citys segregated black section. Franklins father was unharmed, but the property he had contracted to buy for his law office was destroyed. He practiced law from a tent for several months while fighting a new city ordinance that aimed to exclude poor blacks permanently by requiring all new buildings to be constructed of expensive brick and stone. Appealing all the way to the state supreme court, he won the case. Four years later the family finally joined him. Racism continued to haunt Franklin through his teens. He received a scholarship and moved to Nashville in 1931 to attend Fisk University, a historically black college founded after the Civil War. An abusive streetcar company clerk called him a nigger for paying the fare with a $20 bill, and gave him $19.75 worth of dimes and quarters for change. After that Franklin seldom went into town, and when he did was never alone. Trouble came to Fisk instead when a young black man out riding his bicycle struck and slightly injured a white child. A white mob dragged him from his university-owned home on the edge of campus and lynched him. As president of the student government, Franklin protested to the mayor, the governor, and even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Nothing was done.

Seduced by History

To Franklin, college at first was merely a way station en route route to law school and joining his father in practice. But in his first quarter, Professor Theodore S. Currier, the white chairman of the schools history department, delivered the most exciting lectures he had ever heard for a course on contemporary civilization. During his sophomore year, Franklin took two courses from Professor Currier, while forming a close personal relationship that developed into a deep friendship. Soon his law school plans were forgotten, replaced by a desire to study, write, and teach history.

Currier became the most important influence in Franklins life. To stimulate and train his prize pupil, the professor offered new courses and seminars. He encouraged Franklin to apply for graduate study at Harvard, where he had gone. Franklin was admitted after graduating from Fisk in 1935, apparently the first time a student from a historically black institution was allowed to attend without first proving himself with some undergraduate work at Harvard itself. The university, however, did not offer him a scholarship.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Franklins family was unable to offer him more than a token amount of money to attend Harward in far away Massachusetts. He thought of attending the University of Oklahoma close to home, but that school would not admit a black to graduate study. Professor Currier took matters into his own hands, borrowing $500 from a Nashville bank to send Franklin on his way. It was a good investment, the late professor once told People magazine.

There were few other blacks at Harvard. Franklin took a room with a local black family and a job washing dishes for his evening meals. He received his masters degree in nine months and won fellowships to complete his Ph.D. requirements. Finding the course of study far from extraordinary, he left Harvard in 1939 to teach at St. Augustines College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Two years later he completed his dissertation on free blacks in North Carolina and received his doctoral degree.

War-Time Disillusionment

Shortly thereafter the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States was drawn into World War II. Hearing that the U.S. Navy desperately needed volunteers to handle office work, Franklin went to its Raleigh recruiting office. Despite his qualifications (three gold medals in typing, six years secretarial experience in college and graduate school, a course in accounting, and shorthand experience) and the wartime emergency, he was lacking in one important qualificationthe right color skin. Rejected, he turned to the War Department, then assembling a staff of historians to record the definitive history of the conflict. Several whites without advanced degrees had already been signed up, but Franklin, with a book in press, never had his application answered.

At the physical ordered by his draft board in 1943, he was not permitted to enter the doctors office and was told to wait outside by the fire escape. Concluding that the government obviously did not need his services, Franklin spent the remainder of the war outwitting the military by taking a teaching position at North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham, whose president was on the local draft appeal board.

Two later incidents confirmed his judgment about the extent of racial discrimination in the United States. First, while standing in the overcrowded black half coach of a North Carolina train in 1945, he noticed only six men in the adjoining whites-only full-sized coach. Asking the conductor if the two groups could switch coaches, he was told the men were German prisoners of war and could not be moved. Later, when visiting the Louisiana state archives following V-J Day, he learned that blacks were not permitted entry. But since the archives were closed for a week to celebrate victory over the totalitarian Nazis and Japanese, he was unofficially allowed inside to pursue his research.

Legitimizing African American History

An editor at the New York publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf first approached Franklin in the mid-1940s to write a history of black Americans. But Franklin, engaged in research on the Souths militant culture, turned him down. The editor persisted, even visiting Franklin in North Carolina, finally convincing him to write the book. Now in its sixth edition, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans has sold more than two million copies since appearing in 1947 and has been translated into French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, and Chinese.

When I began to write in 1945, there were few courses in black history and hardly any materials, Franklin recalled 45 years later in Southern Living. Now its a respectable area of intellectual inquiry. To write his groundbreaking history of African Americans, Franklin found it necessary to retell the story of the evolution of the people of the United States in order to place the Negro in his proper relationship and perspective, he wrote in the books preface. From Slavery to Freedom complemented the countrys changing intellectual climate and growing sentiment for equal rights for blacks. It legitimized the academic study of African American history and remains the Bible of the field, according to Professor Louis Harlan of the University of Maryland. Before the book appeared, black history was being ignored, Harlan said in a 1990 U.S. News & World Report article. That was hard to do after Franklin marshaled overwhelming evidence of the role blacks played in American history.

Revising Southern History

Despite his success at propelling the study of black history into the academic mainstream, Franklin maintained his identification as a Southern historian. Its often assumed Im a scholar of Afro-American history, but the fact is I havent taught a course in Afro-American history in 30-some-odd years, he told the New York Times Book Review in 1990. My specialty is the history of the South, and that means I teach the history of blacks and whites.

Franklin accepted a professorship at Howard University, a prestigious black institution in the nations capital, in 1947. Continuing his research on Southern history and publishing a steady stream of articles, he coped as best he could with segregated seating in archives and libraries and exclusion from toilets, hotels, and even restaurants near the Library of Congress well into the 1950s. But for him, a Negro scholar searching for truth, the search for food in the city of Washington was one of the minor inconveniences, Franklin wrote in The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar, published in Race and History. In the same essay he confessed to channeling his emotions into unpublished articles to keep his fury at racism from intruding on his scholastic pursuit of the truth.

His published work on various aspects of Southern history sought a better understanding of the entire South and all of its people, Franklin wrote in Race and History. It also attacked the historical status quo. The Militant South, 18001860, appearing in 1956, was a pioneering examination of the Southern psychea search to find answers to why the South invariably reacted violently to crisis situations. If American in general has been a land of violence, it was the South that institutionalized it and bestowed on it an aura of respectability, Franklin wrote. He identified the regions peculiar economic and social institutions, particularly slavery, as the reasons. Throughout their history, many Southerners have continued to invoke the rule of personal judgment alive what the law was, he argued. Keeping this tradition as to making it a part of the apparatus for maintaining white supremacy became a way of life in the south. Though some traditionalists called the book a Negro view of the Old South, it is now considered a point of departure for Southern scholars according to Carol Blesser, a historian from Clemson University, as quoted in U.S. News & World Report.

His next book, Reconstruction After the Civil War, published in 1961, exposed earlier historical fallacies about this era. There was no long Northern military occupation of the South; no seizure of vast political power by incompetent blacks; and too large a role previously given to carpetbaggers. In fact, Franklin pointed out, Radical Republican rule in the South lasted less than a decade in all but three states and was not marked by excessive black misconduct or poor government, a view now widely accepted.

Other books followed, including The Emancipation Proclamation in 1963 and Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North in 1976. That same year, Franklin delivered the National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture in three parts in three different cities during the American bicentennial. In his lecture, published as Racial Equality in America, he confronted the countrys persistent disparity between the goal of racial equality and the facts of discrimination.

Civil Rights Activist

Franklins prominence as a historian aided him in his role as racial pioneer. His appointment as Chairman of a department of 52 white historians at Brooklyn College in 1956 became front-page news in the New York Times. Still, it took him more than a year and the help of a shrewd lawyer to locate, buy, and finance a home in the neighborhood surrounding the college.

To counter such discrimination, Franklin frequently aided the NAACPs legal efforts to achieve equality. He served as an expert witness in Lyman Johnson v. The University of Kentucky in 1949, a case that successfully challenged that states separate but equal graduate education system. In 1953 he spent two months commuting between Washington and New York for the upcoming Brown v. Board of Education case that would overthrow separate but equal grade schools the following year. Franklin worked with the lawyers, wrote historical essays, and provided a historical setting for their legal questions. Using ones skills to influence public policy seemed to be a satisfactory middle ground between an ivory tower posture of isolation and disengagement and a posture of passionate advocacy that too often deserted the canons of scholarship, he later wrote in Race and History.

In 1962 Franklin became the first African American ever elected to membership in Washington D.C.s exclusive Cosmos Club. The following year, serving as Pitt Professor of American History at the University of Cambridge, he appeared on British television to explain the civil rights movementin particular black student James Merediths attempts to enter the University of Mississippi and 1963s historic March on Washingtonto viewers.

Back in the United States, he joined Martin Luther Kings 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery with 30 other historians. More recently, he testified against Robert Borks nomination to the Supreme Court before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987. In an Ebony magazine article in 1990, he described himself as living two separate livesone as a historian, carefully guarding the limits that one can go in that area, and another as an activist citizen, trying to change things in society.

Throughout his career, Franklin has remained committed to integration. He has never bowed to the pressure of fashions and the propaganda of black nationalism, Yale historian C. Vann Woodward told U.S. News & World Report. After joining the University of Chicago in 1964, Franklin opposed student attempts to establish a separate black studies program.

Continuing Passion

Franklin later served as chairman of the University of Chicagos history department from 1967 to 1970 and became the schools John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor in 1969. He moved to Duke University in 1982 as James B. Duke Professor of History, becoming professor emeritus in 1985 when he joined Dukes law school as professor of legal history.

In 1990 he and his wife, Aurelia, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. They met in 1931, married in 1940, and became parents of their only child, John, twelve years later. Franklin is also a world traveler, avid fisherman, and orchid grower. His custom-built greenhouse holds more than 1,000 of the flowers, including Phalaenopsis John Hope Franklin, a white-and-red hybrid recognized by Britains Royal Horticultural Society.

Well past retirement age, Franklins passion for history remains strong. I love to teach. I love to write. And I love to lecture to the public on historic subjects, he told Ebony magazine in 1990. These thingsindividually and togetherare exciting to me. They make my existence worthwhile.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates Franklins drive than his 40-year quest to write a biography of George Washington Williams, author of the first scholarly account of American blacks. In his essay Stalking George Washington Williams, Franklin conveys his astonishment and elation at discovering this early black historians two-volume History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 in 1945. Determined to write Williamss biography, Franklin set out to learn more about this elusive figure. In his brief 42 years, Williams had fought in two wars, served as a pastor in several churches, been a lawyer, an editor, the first black in the Ohio Legislature, and a world traveler.

Following Williamss trail to Boston, Washington, Cincinnati, Zaire, Belgium, Germany, and England, Franklin reached countless dead ends, but was unwilling to give up. He found the key at the Syracuse University Library in the uncatalogued papers of railroad magnate Collis Huntington, a patron of Williamss later life. In 1975, 30 years after beginning his quest, Franklin laid a wreath at Williamss unmarked grave in Blackpool, England. Ten years later, George Washington Williams: A Biography was published and the pioneering historian memorialized with a black granite tombstone.

Summing up 50 years of historical writing, Franklin collected 27 of his essays, including his brief autobiography, in Race and History: Selected Essays 19381988. Looking back over his career in the books preface, Franklin reflected on the enormous satisfaction to this historian who seeks to mine the various quarries of the past in the belief that good history is a good foundation for a better present and future.

Selected writings

The Free Negro in North Carolina, 17901860, University of North Carolina Press, 1943.

From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, Alfred A. Knopf, 1947.

The Militant South, 18001860, Belknap, 1956.

Reconstruction After the Civil War, University of Chicago Press, 1961.

The Emancipation Proclamation, Doubleday, 1963.

(With John w. Caughey and Ernest R. May) Land of the Free, Benziger, 1965.

(With the editors of Time-Life Books) Illustrated History of Black Americans, Time-Life, Inc., 1970.

A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North, Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Racial Equality in America, University of Chicago Press, 1976.

George Washington Williams: A Biography, University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Race and History: Selected Essays 19381988, Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

The Color Line: Legacy to the Twenty-first Century, University of Missouri Press, 1993.


The Civil War Diary of James T. Ayers, Illinois State Historical Society, 1947.

(With Isadore Starr) The Negro in the Twentieth Century, Random House, 1967.

Color and Race, Houghton, 1968.

Reminiscences of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John R. Lynch, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

(With August Meier) Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Also editor of Albion Tourgees Fools Errand, 1961; T.W. Higginsons Army Life in a Black Regiment, 1962; and W. E. B. Du Boiss Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 1969.



Franklin, John Hope, George Washington Williams: A Biography, University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Franklin, John Hope, The Militant South, 18001860, Belknap, 1956.

Franklin, John Hope, Race and History: Selected Essays 19381988, Louisiana State University Press, 1990.


Ebony, February 1990; November 1990.

Journal of American History, September 1990.

New Republic, April 30, 1990.

New York Times Book Review, June 3, 1990.

People, October 29, 1979.

Southern Living, June 1990.

U.S. News & World Report, September 17, 1990.

James J. Podesta

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John Hope Franklin

John Hope Franklin

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.

Resisted Labeling

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

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 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. □

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Franklin, John Hope

John Hope Franklin, 1915–2009, the dean of 20th-century African-American historians, b. Rentiesville, Okla., grad. Fisk Univ. (A.B., 1935), Harvard (M.A., 1936; Ph.D., 1941). Franklin served on the faculties of his alma mater (1936–37), St. Augustine's College (1939–43), North Carolina College (1943–47), Howard Univ. (1947–56), Brooklyn College (1956–64), and the Univ. of Chicago (1964–82) before assuming (1982) the James B. Duke Professorship of History at Duke. He became professor emeritus in 1985, but taught at Duke's law school from 1985 to 1992. Franklin was also president of Phi Beta Kappa (1973–76), the American Historical Association (1978–79), and several other scholarly organizations.

Franklin's many publications focused on the history of the American South, on slavery and Reconstruction, and on the African-American contribution to the development of the United States. His best-known book, the pioneering From Slavery to Freedom (1947; 8th ed. 2000), revolutionized the understanding of African-American history and changed the way the subject is taught. Among Franklin's other works are The Militant South: 1800–1860 (1956), Reconstruction after the Civil War (1961), The Emancipation Proclamation (1963), Color and Race (1968), Racial Equality in America (1976), Race and History (1989), The Color Line (1993), and In Search of the Promised Land (with L. Schweninger, 2005). He also edited a number of books, including the autobiography (1997) of his father, an Oklahoma lawyer.

Active in the civil-rights movement, Franklin provided historical information vital to the brief for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans. case, marched with Martin Luther King, and testified repeatedly at congressional hearings regarding racial issues. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 and was appointed President Clinton's adviser on race two years later. His papers form the nucleus of Duke's John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African-American Documentation.

See his autobiography, Mirror to America (2005).

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