One of America’s preeminent historians, John Hope Franklin would have celebrated his 100th birthday this month. Franklin, who died in 2009 at age 94, transformed the study of African-American history into an academic discipline at mainstream colleges and universities.
In 1953, when Franklin was teaching history at Howard University, his course offerings included “The South to 1865,” “The Negro in American History” and “Problems in American History to 1865.” Other classes included “Ethiopia and Egypt” and “The Peoples and Cultures of Africa.”
Franklin would have been amused by critics who say African-American history should not be considered a serious discipline in the wake of the UNC-Chapel Hill scandal. Athletes have been accused of taking bogus classes at the school’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies.
Franklin’s book, “From Slavery to Freedom,” was first published in 1947 while he was teaching at Durham’s N.C. Central University. The volume has been continuously updated since its initial publication, with sales of over 3 million copies. It is required reading in classrooms across the country.
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Imagine laborers, miners, sculptors and rock-climbers using dynamite, jackhammers and chisels to carve into the craggy surface of a mountain a monument that honors African-American historians.
Franklin would be among those chosen. Ditto for his mentor, Carter Godwin Woodson, who in February 1926 founded “Black History Week,” the forerunner of Black History Month.
The third position on the monument would honor William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. Sociologist, historian, economist, editor, author, Pan-Africanist and human rights activist – Du Bois’ work served as a template for the civil rights movement.
The fourth spot would honor Anna Julia Cooper. A state marker in downtown Raleigh commemorates her as an educator, feminist, author and graduate of St. Augustine’s College. What the marker does not mention is that Cooper was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in history when she graduated in 1925 from the University of Paris, Sorbonne. She was a pioneer, activist and role model that many others emulated, including the influential historian, author and longtime NCCU professor Helen G. Edmonds. Cooper’s declaration, “only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter,” inspired the title of a book later authored by another black female historian, Paula Giddings.
Franklin’s scholarly activism has affected all Americans.
In the fall of 1953, the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall would argue before the nation’s high court, challenging separate but equal public schools. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund began assembling a research team to help bolster Marshall’s challenge. Franklin was among those chosen.
Richard Kluger, author of “Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education: Black America’s Struggle For Equality,” recounted what happened when Marshall contacted Franklin.
“Thurgood made it clear that I had no choice in the matter, whatever,” Franklin said. “It was a matter of beginning as soon as I could.”
It must have been a heady time. About 11 people holed up in the NAACP’s New York headquarters, working around the clock. Data streaming in from around the country, a copy machine whirring. The group – sensing they were making history – gulping down sandwiches, coffee and beer while working nonstop.
“I have never seen a man work so long and so hard,” Franklin said about Marshall. “It was nothing for him to say at 1 a.m., ‘How about a 15-minute break?’ ”
The work Franklin produced showed how, as he put it, “Southerners defied, ignored and worked against every conception of equality laid down in the 14th Amendment and subsequent legislation.”
It was as a high school student in Rockingham, enrolled in Afro-American History, that I became acquainted with “From Slavery to Freedom,” our textbook.
My teacher, Mr. Louis Ross, recently gave me his copy of the textbook, a fourth edition published in 1973. The covers of the book are gone and the spine has curled, obscuring the title.
I never considered who authored “From Slavery to Freedom” until my senior year at N.C. Central University. One of my classmates was Bouna Ndiaye. Bouna, a native of Senegal, mentioned that he was Franklin’s adopted son. I begged for an introduction.
He obliged, and that resulted in my writing several stories over the years with Franklin as the focus.
Dr. Franklin gave me a copy of his biography of George Washington Williams, who was born about 15 years before slavery’s end in 1849. Before Williams died in 1891, he went from being a near illiterate Civil War soldier to clergyman, newspaper editor, Ohio legislator, ambassador to Haiti and historian. He wrote the “History of the Negro Race from 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, Soldiers, and as Citizens.”
The historian signed the book: “To Thomas I. McDonald, with the appreciation and cordial best wishes of John Hope Franklin.”
That book is a treasure, one of the many gifts he gave America – the missing pages of history we would all do well to learn.
Thomasi McDonald is the police reporter at The News & Observer.