Fellows News

Featured Fellow: John Hope Franklin

Feb 4, 2016

The descendant of slaves, John Hope Franklin was part of a family that embodied the theme and title of his most celebrated work, From Slavery to Freedom.

John Hope Franklin
2 January 1915 – 25 March 2009
Guggenheim Fellow in U.S. History, 1950, 1973

“The Conscience of the Nation”

When the Library of Congress honored John Hope Franklin with its John W. Kluge Prize in 2006, the award citation praised him for documenting that “[l]ong before the ‘agency’ of ordinary Americans became a touchstone of historical writing . . . blacks were active agents in shaping their own and the nation’s history.” Franklin himself is a case in point.

The grandson of a slave held by Chickasaw Indians, Franklin was only six when the Tulsa law office of his father was burnt down in the race riots of 1921; as a youth, he and his siblings were with his mother when they all were put off a train for daring to sit in the car reserved for whites; and even though he was the valedictorian of his high-school class, he was barred from entering the University of Oklahoma. Writing of his youth in his autobiography, Mirror to America (2005), Franklin recalled that there “never was a moment in any contact I had with white people that I was not reminded that society as a whole had sentenced me to abject humiliation for the sole reason that I was not white.” In spite of such injustices, he never let others’ prejudices impede him.

His parents, Buck Colbert Franklin and Molly Franklin, had instilled in him and his four older siblings a strong sense of every individual’s worth: “In their minds there was nothing about race that contributed to a man’s superiority or inferiority,” John Hope Franklin recalled in an interview for the University of Chicago Magazine (1980). He liked to recount how his father never paid any attention to “Whites Only” signs, going wherever he chose. The Franklin children followed that example—as a rule: when, in order to hear an opera, the young John Hope accepted being relegated to the black section of the opera house rather than miss the performance, his father was not pleased.

Both of his parents were well educated: they met while students at Roger Williams University in Nashville. His father went on to earn his law degree by mail, and his mother became a school teacher. They moved to Louisiana, but when that state’s bar was closed to his father, the couple relocated to the all-black town of Rentiesville, Oklahoma, where John Hope was born and where Buck served as the town’s postmaster and only lawyer. Later, planning to move his family to Tulsa, Buck Franklin set about building a home and law office there. At the time, Tulsa’s Greenwood section was the most prosperous black community in the United States. But when a group of black men tried to defend a black teen falsely accused of raping a white woman from a lynch mob, shots were exchanged and a riot begun. An undetermined number of blacks were murdered and thirty-five square blocks of Greenwood—including Buck Franklin’s new home and business—were destroyed. In a move some suspect was an attempt to confiscate the Greenwood land, the city decreed that only stone or brick (materials out of reach of the black population) could be used to rebuild. Buck Colbert Franklin challenged that ruling and, living and working out of a canvas tent, took the case all the way to the Oklahoma supreme court—and won.

Eighty years later, the Oklahoma legislature created the Tulsa Race Riot Commission in part to try to locate a purported mass grave used in 1921 to bury the riot’s black victims, which some believed to number in the hundreds. No such grave was found, but in its report the commission blamed the city of Tulsa for enabling the mob and failing to protect the residents of Greenwood and suggested reparations be paid to the survivors or their descendants. In response, the Oklahoma legislature awarded development funds to Greenwood, established a memorial for the victims, and offered scholarships for its residents, but no reparations. Unsatisfied, a group of survivors filed suit, Alexander v. State of Oklahoma, and John Hope Franklin, who had been an advisor to the commission, signed on as a plaintiff.

Years earlier, John Hope Franklin had done his part to right different wrongs. He had testified as an expert witness in Lyman Johnson v. University of Kentucky in 1949, a case that resulted in the desegregation of that institution. In the next decade, recruited by Thurgood Marshall, Franklin joined a team of historians conducting research for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers in their successful fight to end public-school segregation in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954). “[The Supreme Court Justices] raised several questions, about the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, with respect to segregated schools. They were just plain historical questions, and the court felt that they had to have historians answer them.” Among the other prominent historians in that group were Kenneth Clark, Rayford Logan, C. Vann Woodward, and Al Kelly, a number of whom were there on Franklin’s recommendation. He and the other historians “held seminars for lawyers, and immersed them in the history of that period. I wrote several working papers, one of which was ‘Jim Crow Goes to School: [The Genesis of Legal Segregation in Southern Schools],’ which later was published [in South Atlantic Quarterly, Spring 1959].”

In fact, Franklin had originally intended to be a lawyer, like his father, and in 1931 had enrolled at Fisk University with that intention. But when, fulfilling a graduation requirement, he took an American history course taught by Theodore S. Currier, a white professor, his path was forever changed. Currier’s approach to history fascinated Franklin, “the puzzle of putting things together from small clues, from trying to understand the present by looking at the past,” as he recalled in Change (February 1977). “I had never, never had such an intellectual experience.” Currier thought Franklin an exceptional student, and on Franklin’s graduation (A.B. in history, magna cum laude) in 1935, he not only encouraged him to attend Harvard University, his own alma mater, but took out a loan of $500 to help him with his first year’s tuition. Franklin earned his master’s degree in a year, and completed his Ph.D., also at Harvard, in 1941. His expanded dissertation was published as The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860 (UNC Press, 1943).

During his first year of doctoral studies he had also been teaching at St. Augustine’s College. He then accepted a professorship at North Carolina College at Durham (now North Carolina Central University) where he remained till his appointment as Professor of History at Howard University in 1947.

So, then thirty-two years of age, a full professor, and newly married to his college sweetheart, Aurelia Whittington, one would have thought Franklin’s prospects bright, unlimited. But at that time, for a black academic an appointment at Howard University was probably the last appointment he would ever receive. “[I]t was unthinkable that there could be any black professors at any of the schools in the area, or even at Columbia, or at Yale, or at Harvard, or at Michigan, or at, you name it,” Franklin recalled in an interview for the Library of Congress Information Bulletin (October 2001). “[Howard] was really a formidable institution of learning [but] when you got here you were ‘all dressed up with nowhere to go.’”

But he kept putting his all into teaching, research, and writing. “I did love the work that I was doing. The scholarship was just immensely rewarding and although it wouldn’t get me promoted out of Howard, that was all right. Secondly, it was to show, without any hope of reward that I was as good as those other people getting rewards. . . . And so it did me personally a lot of good to be able to be out there on the firing line, even if I wasn’t going any further [than Howard].”

It was while at Howard that he began his long relationship with the Journal of Negro History (now titled Journal of African American History), edited The Civil War Diary of James T. Ayers (Illinois State Historical Society, 1947), and, at the prompting of fellow historian and Knopf editor Roger W. Shugg, wrote the monumental study that most consider his magnum opus, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes (Knopf, 1947), which was an outgrowth of the black history courses he had been teaching.

As was his wont, he was at the same time collecting materials for what would eventually become The Militant South (Belknap Press, Harvard UP, 1956) and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North (LSU Press, 1976; Jules Landry Award winner). The latter book was the project he proposed in his first successful application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1950, but he actually spent most of his fellowship term working on The Militant South, which even after he had published many more books and articles he still considered his most important work because it was “based practically entirely on original, exhaustive research.”

“Original, exhaustive research” was Franklin’s trademark. He delighted in scouring archives to unearth any and all information he could find on topics that intrigued him. For example, during his second Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1973, he used his term to continue his decades’-long work on a biography of George Washington Williams, a nineteenth-century renaissance man (“a minister, state legislator, lawyer, historian, explorer extraordinaire, ladies’ man,” as Franklin later described him) whom Franklin once praised as “one of the small heroes of the world.” Williams’ two-volume A History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 (1882) had initially caught Franklin’s attention as an undergraduate at Fisk University; in fact, his article “George Washington Williams, Historian” was published in the Journal of Negro History in June 1946. He would complete this biography, published by the University of Chicago Press, in 1985. His forty years’ labor of love earned him the 1986 Clarence Holt Literary Prize, awarded annually to a writer by the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in recognition of significant contributions to the cultural history of Africa and the African diaspora.

But such recognition of black scholarship was not easily come by. While still at Howard University, C. Vann Woodward, who had taught Franklin at Harvard and would become a lifelong friend, invited him to present a paper at a 1949 meeting of the Southern Historical Association, much to the consternation of the all-white membership: a black person had never before addressed that body.

Years later, in the interview in the 2001 Library of Congress Bulletin, Franklin comically recalled the outrage: “The program committee said, ‘Why would Vann Woodward do this to us? To have this character, and not even notify us until he’d been put on the program. Where is he going to stay? . . . Is he going to be standing on the platform and look down at white folks?’ . . . Vann was very calm. He said, ‘Franklin is very resourceful, he might bring his pup tent and K-rations and put out a tent on the campus of William and Mary.’ He knew that Douglass Adair, the editor of the William and Mary Quarterly, had already asked me to stay at his house.”

In spite of members’ initial indignation, his paper, a short working version of The Militant South, was very well received. Twenty years later, in 1971, he would be elected president of that association. By the end of his career, he had also served as president of the American Studies Association (1966-1967), Organization of American Historians (1974-1975), and American Historical Association (1979).

One of his most significant “firsts” allowed Franklin to break through the glass ceiling that Howard University represented for black academics. In 1956, Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York system, offered Franklin a position as professor and head of its history department. He had already given lectures and held visiting positions at such prestigious institutions as Harvard, Cornell, Wisconsin, and Berkeley, but this appointment merited an article by Benjamin Fine in the New York Times (15 July 1956), which noted that “For the first time, a municipal college is to have a Negro educator as chairman of an academic department,” and closed by quoting the president of Brooklyn College, Harry D. Gideonse: “Maybe it will help the University of Alabama students see that color is not a bar to scholarship,” a clear jab at the student rioting earlier that year over the desegregation of that southern university.

During his successful tenure at Brooklyn College, his reputation as an outstanding historian and teacher opened more academic doors for him, including his appointment as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University for 1962-1963. He was the first black person to be so honored. In 1961, the University of Chicago Press published his Reconstruction After the Civil War, and issued a paperback edition of it in 1963. The following year the University of Chicago offered him a position as Professor of American History; three years later, he became the department’s chairman, the first black person to chair any department at the university. In 1969 he was named John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor. Among his many other duties while at that university, he was editor for the university’s Negro American Biographies and Autobiographies Series (1969- ), general editor (with A. S. Eisenstadt) of the American History Series (Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1968- ), and the editor (with August Meier) of Black Leaders of the 20th Century (U of Illinois Press, 1981).

The civil rights movement and Franklin’s career were roughly coeval. In fact, he claimed he could trace the civil right movement’s ascendance by the sales of From Slavery to Freedom. On its publication in 1947, it had quickly become a staple at black colleges, but as the civil rights movement and concomitant interest in black history gained momentum, so did the popularity of this study: it eventually sold over 3 million copies and was translated into at least five languages.

Although some call From Slavery to Freedom “the Bible of Black History” and have dubbed Franklin the “father of African American history” (he himself might defer to George Washington Williams or W. E. B. DuBois), he was adamant that he didn’t teach black history; he taught “the history of the South—black and white.” More precisely, he envisioned himself as eliminating the white bias in American history by uncovering and reasserting the role of African Americans in that history. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of that mission, he had no patience with the rise of black studies programs at universities, as he maintained in the University of Chicago Magazine interview: “There are courses all through the University [of Chicago] which bear on black studies. If anyone wants to, he can build a black studies program for himself.” It was a consistent, long-held position of his. In Change (February 1977), he argued that “in most places black studies is a political football used to placate angry black students. It doesn’t have the intellectual respectability in course content that would place it on par with other divisions of the university. Frequently, the university doesn’t use the same standards in making faculty appointments that it employs for other divisions—what happens on the other side of the tracks doesn’t matter much to them.”

Franklin believed very strongly that truths unearthed and made known by historians could and should influence governmental policies. “One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation,” he maintained in an oft-quoted statement, “if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” But his pen was not the only weapon he wielded in the fight for racial equality. Besides his role in Brown v. Board of Education decision and other court cases, he marched in 1965 with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and on the Washington Mall, served in the U.S. delegation to UNESCO (1998), and chaired the Advisory Board for One America, President Clinton’s program for improving race relations. Still some claim he should have been more of an activist. In the University of Chicago Magazine interview, he wholeheartedly rejected that criticism: “I don’t play the same role as an activist as my good friend Jesse Jackson. There are times when you must march, and I have. . . . We all have our roles to play. . . . I haven’t insulated myself in an ivory tower. I write to be read. I have tried to provide as much fuel for the whole civil rights movement as anyone, with my writing.” One evidence of his dedication to and success in advocating for civil rights came in 1995, when the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal, its highest honor. That same year he became the inaugural recipient of the W. E. B. DuBois Award from the Fisk University Alumni Association. “I was determined,” he asserted in his autobiography, “to be as active as I could in the fight to eradicate the stain of racism that clouded American intellectual and academic life even as it poisoned other aspects of American society.”

Franklin retired from the University of Chicago as Professor Emeritus in 1982, and after two years as a Fellow at the National Humanities Center, joined the faculty of Duke University, serving as James B. Duke Professor of History (the first black professor at Duke to hold an endowed chair) until 1985, when he became both James B. Duke Professor of History Emeritus and Professor of Legal History in Duke’s Law School.

Duke University honored Franklin in many ways. In 1995 it installed the John Hope Franklin collection of African & African American Documentation in its rare book library; in 1997, his portrait was hung in Perkins Library; in 2001, it established the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies, which encompassed the Franklin Humanities Institute; and the Duke Law School established the John Hope Franklin Chair in American Legal History. In 1996, Duke, in conjunction with North Carolina State University, North Carolina Central University, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, named him “Historian of the Century.”

Over the course of his career, in addition to his academic and governmental appointments, Franklin lectured around the world, wrote twelve books, edited a number of others, including (in conjunction with his son, John Whittington Franklin) his father’s biography, and published scores of articles. In 2005 Mirror to America, his own autobiography, was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. He was the recipient of more than 130 honorary degrees, and the Award for Outstanding Achievement (1995) from the Organization of American Historians; the Records of Achievement Award (2007) from the Foundation for the National Archives; and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and the American Philosophical Society, both in 2007; to name but a few of his accolades. Moreover, as he recounted in Change, he had opportunities to become a dean, a university president, and even an ambassador. “I’ve had all sorts of jobs offered to me but I don’t want them. I always keep my eye on my main objective—to be a historian. Whatever reputation I have stands on that.”

Written by Mary Kiffer, Foundation Editor