John Hope Franklin didn’t just endure or bristle at the acts of racism inflicted upon him. He used them to help teach America about the full history of its black citizens, from slavery through the civil rights era and beyond. As a result, in 1979, UNC presented an honorary doctorate of laws to Franklin.
He died on March 25, just two months after the country’s first black president took office. He was 94.
The Oklahoma native told stories about his frequent brushes with racism growing up, such as being forced off an all-white train, having to sit in a segregated section of the Tulsa opera house and witnessing a race riot.
And after President Bill Clinton in 1995 awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, Franklin said that later that day he was mistaken for a coat room attendant at a prestigious Washington club, where he was a member, and as a parking attendant at his hotel. Clinton chose him in 1997 to head the advisory board to the President’s Initiative on Race to promote dialogue about the country’s race problems.
In 2006, he received the John W. Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanities in a ceremony at the Library of Congress. In his prepared remarks, he said he had long struggled “to understand how it is that we could seek a land of freedom for the people of Europe and, at the very same time, establish a social and economic system that enslaved people who happen not to be from Europe.”
He went on: “As a student of history, I have attempted to explain it historically, but that explanation has not been all that satisfactory. That has left me no alternative but to use my knowledge of history, and whatever other knowledge and skills I have, to present the case for change in keeping with the express purpose of attaining the promised goals of equality for all peoples.”
Franklin said historians have an important role in shaping policy. He worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall and other major civil rights figures. His participation including working with Marshall’s legal team to strike down segregation in the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the nation’s public schools. He participated in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., with King.
His academic career began after being denied admission to the University of Oklahoma and enrolling instead at historically black Fisk University in Nashville, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1935. There he met Aurelia E. Whittington, who would become his wife, and sometime editor, of almost 60 years. They had one son, John Whittington Franklin, who survives him. Mrs. Franklin died in 1999.
Franklin went on to attain graduate degrees at Harvard and to teach at several colleges, including Fisk, St. Augustine’s College, N.C. Central University, Howard University and the University of Chicago. Most recently, he was the James B. Duke Professor emeritus of history at Duke University, and for seven years was professor of legal history in the law school there.
Possibly his best known book is From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, first published in 1947. Considered one of the definitive historical surveys of the American black experience, it has sold more than 3 million copies and has been translated into Japanese, German, French, Chinese and other languages.
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. In 1990, a collection of essays covering a teaching and writing career of 50 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. His 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. His latest research dealt with runaway slaves.
Franklin was the first African-American president of the American Historical Association; the first black department chairman at a predominantly white institution, Brooklyn College; the first black professor to hold an endowed chair at Duke; the first black chairman of the University of Chicago’s history department; and the first African-American to present a paper at the segregated Southern Historical Association, one of many groups that later elected him its president.
At his home in Durham, Franklin continued a lifelong hobby of cultivating hundreds of orchids; one species was named for him, the Phalaenopsis John Hope Franklin.
— Keith King ’82