Nation & World

Franklin was a creator of black history

John Hope Franklin crafted the foundation of African-American history. He lived it, too.

Franklin, 94, who died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at Duke Hospital, was one of the 20th century's most influential historians and found himself at the forefront of some of the nation's key civil-rights struggles.

His book "From Slavery to Freedom," first published in 1947, was a seminal work and has sold 3.5 million copies. Over a lifetime of scholarship, the professor helped ensure that no American history book could be complete without the story of African-Americans, and that America could not be whole until it confronted its past of slavery and segregation.

Franklin helped NAACP lawyers with research for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case in 1953. He joined historians who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery in 1965. And five decades after his masterpiece was published, Franklin was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997 to lead a national initiative on race.

"He is the prince of black academics and the prince of contemporary American historians," said Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor and authority on African and African-American history, in a recent interview. He referred to Franklin as his "intellectual godfather."

On Wednesday afternoon, the news spread in Durham as it began to rain. "Our hearts are broken around here," said Duke professor Karla Holloway.

At the university, where the John Hope Franklin Center honors the man, president Richard Brodhead called Franklin a towering historian "who led the recognition that African-American history and American history are one" and who "spent a lifetime building a future of inclusiveness, fairness and equality."

Though Franklin earned a doctorate from Harvard and eventually more than 130 honorary degrees, his life was peppered with segregation's subtle humiliations.

At 12, he rushed to help a blind white woman cross the street in Tulsa, Okla., until she commanded him to take his "filthy hands off her" after realizing he was black. As a college student, he gave a $20 bill to a streetcar worker and asked for change, prompting the man to hurl a racial slur and count out $19.85 in dimes and nickels. As a young scholar, Franklin toiled on his research at the state archives in Raleigh, where he was confined to a tiny room across from the whites-only research room.

Franklin would not be deterred.

"I hardly needed to seek a way to confront American racial injustice," he wrote in his 2005 memoir "Mirror to America." "My ambition was sufficient to guarantee that confrontation."

Exposed early to hatred

Franklin was born Jan. 2, 1915 in the small, all-black town of Rentiesville, Okla., to Buck and Mollie Franklin. Buck Franklin was a lawyer, postmaster and newspaper editor who was once thrown out of a courtroom by a judge because of his race. Later, the family moved to Tulsa, where Buck Franklin had to practice law from a tent after a bloody race riot destroyed parts of the city.

Young John Hope, named for a well-known black educator from Atlanta, survived a near fatal bout with the Spanish flu in 1918 and spent his preschool years in his mother's first grade classroom, where he learned to read and write at an early age. Mollie Franklin, who rode horseback to a nearby village for a teaching job and carried a pistol in her saddlebag, taught her son about resilience.

When they were ejected from a train for sitting in the whites-only coach, Franklin, 6, was scolded by his mother for crying. "She admonished me not to waste my energy by fretting but to save it in order to prove that I was as good as any of them," he wrote in his autobiography.

Franklin set out on a path to distinguish himself. He was valedictorian and senior class president at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa. He went on to historically black Fisk University in Nashville, where he would meet his future wife, Aurelia. One of his professors at Fisk, Ted Currier, would also play a key role in his life.

A first for Harvard

After graduating magna cum laude in 1935, Franklin was accepted at graduate school at Harvard -- the first student from a historically black institution to be admitted without conditions. But he had no hope of affording it during the Depression. Currier, his professor, went to the bank and borrowed $500 for his promising student. The next day, Franklin was on his way to Cambridge, Mass.

At Harvard, Franklin worked several odd jobs, including washing dishes at a fraternity. Each night at the boarding house where he lived, he tutored, for free, a World War I veteran who couldn't read.

After earning his master's degree, he returned to Fisk for a year of teaching, then moved to Raleigh to teach at St. Augustine's College and conduct research for his dissertation. He married Aurelia Whittington in Goldsboro in 1940. A year later, he received his doctorate from Harvard.

Soon after, his first book, "The Free Negro in Carolina, 1790-1860," was published, and he began to teach at what is now N.C. Central University.

Working almost nonstop for more than a year in Durham and at the Library of Congress in Washington, Franklin managed to complete the manuscript for "From Slavery to Freedom." It would become the primary text used for decades once black studies started to gain ground in the academy.

Writing the book took Franklin through 500 years of history, from slave ships to plantations to lynchings. "I had seen it all," he would write later, "and in the seeing I had become bewildered and yet in the process lost my own innocence."

He would be sought out by universities across the land. Once, he was invited to give a lecture to a history class of a professor friend at UNC-Chapel Hill. During the talk, the friend was summoned from the classroom by a call from a trustee who said he'd heard that "a Negro was lecturing in his class," according to his memoir. The UNC professor hung up on the trustee.

Joining a legal battle

Franklin's career took off, first with a position at the prestigious, predominantly black Howard University in Washington.

He and Aurelia settled there with their son, John Whittington Franklin, known as "Whit." While there, Franklin was summoned by Thurgood Marshall to work with the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund in its preparations for the Brown v. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court. He would spend the week teaching at Howard, then take the train to New York on weekends, where he stayed at the Algonquin Hotel and worked late into the night on historical research for Marshall and his team.

In the spring of 1954, when the high court pronounced that "separate but equal" had no place in the United States, Aurelia Franklin called her husband's faculty office to tell him the news.

"I am certain that I let out a shriek," he recalled years later.

The Franklins were constantly on the move, as he had visiting teaching stints at white institutions such as the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University. Franklin would not be offered a permanent job on a white campus, though, until 1956, when he became chairman of the history department at Brooklyn College, a first for a black professor. The event made the front page of The New York Times. It was the latest but not the last time Franklin would break racial barriers.

The tall man with impeccable manners and grace was the epitome of the gentleman intellectual. Yet he was comfortable speaking his mind and unwilling to be treated as a second-class citizen. As a young man, he had learned that his parents would never voluntarily accept segregation. Though they didn't approve, Franklin had once sat in the negro section in order to attend a traveling opera performance. It was something that haunted him for years, and, though he became an opera fan, he would never forget the humiliating way he was introduced to the music.

In the 1950s as a program director for the Southern Historical Association, he planned the group's conference in Memphis but refused to attend, even though he longed to hear the keynote speech by novelist William Faulkner.

The event was at the Peabody Hotel, which did not allow blacks to stay or dine there. Franklin would not subject himself to special accommodations. "There were times when I had to say enough is enough," he wrote in his autobiography.

Brooklyn College had provided a path to leadership for Franklin, but his credentials kept calling him elsewhere. In 1962-63, he spent a year teaching at Cambridge University in England. While there, he became the black American voice to explain civil rights unrest in the United States, appearing on British television. He also received an offer that he never expected -- to join the faculty at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1964.

Three years later, he became chairman, again a news event.

After retiring from Chicago, Franklin and his wife moved back to their old hometown, Durham, in 1980.

Franklin would go to work on a new book as a fellow at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park.

They settled in a comfortable home on the wooded Pineview Road, where they left the harsh Chicago winters behind and raised orchids in a greenhouse out back.

Teaching at Duke

Duke University began to court Franklin, and in 1982, he became the James B. Duke Professor of History, the university's highest professorship. He expected to retire only three years later but instead joined legal scholar Walter Dellinger and UNC-Chapel Hill historian William Leuchtenburg to teach a constitutional history course at Duke's law school.

The three men became close. On Wednesday, Leuchtenburg recalled someone once describing Franklin as the country's pre-eminent black historian.

"John Hope took exception to this, quite rightly," Leuchtenburg said. "He wasn't just a leading black historian, he was a leading American historian."

In 1987, Franklin was diagnosed with stomach cancer and treated with surgery and chemotherapy.

That same year, Franklin, Dellinger and Leuchtenburg banded together to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Franklin might have been expected to slow down in his 80s, but he seemed indefatigable. He helped care for Aurelia, whose health deteriorated from Alzheimer's disease in the early 1990s.

The two were married 58 years when she died in 1999.

Yet he did not depart from the national stage. Clinton named him to lead a national commission on race and once said that Franklin "looks history straight in the face and tells it like it is." In the end, the effort did not lead to any lasting gains and was something of a disappointment to Franklin.

Franklin was always circumspect, but he would let loose with friends. And the courtly gentleman had a sense of humor. Last summer, he played a bit part in a coming feature film based on Tim Tyson's book "Blood Done Sign My Name."

Franklin played an elderly man who helps guide a mule onto a truck. He proudly displayed his "star" director's chair in his Durham living room.

"I wouldn't trade that for a garbage bag full of $100 bills," said Tyson, a professor at Duke. "It's just one of the great delights of my life."

Honors and reminders

The accolades kept coming for Franklin in his elder years. In 1995, he was awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The night before, at a dinner party at a swanky Washington club, a white woman in the lobby handed him her coat check and ordered him to bring her coat -- just one more slight.

Eleven years later, he was one of two winners of a $1 million international award from the Library of Congress for lifetime achievement in the humanities.

A favorite honor was a bit more modest. Franklin, who came to love orchids during a visiting professorship at the University of Hawaii, became an aficionado of the exotic flower.

After one of his national lecture tours, he had a species named after him as a surprise gift: Phalaenopsis John Hope Franklin.

Friends last saw him in late January just before his health declined and he entered the hospital.

Holloway had invited Franklin to a brunch at her home on Barack Obama's inauguration day.

He couldn't make it because of the snow.

"I'm so glad that he lived to comment on this moment," Holloway said. "For us, that was our lesson about history. Through his eyes, this moment gained even greater depth of importance."

Franklin was recorded on a video interview at Duke at the time of the inauguration. With a calm satisfaction written on his face, he said, "I knew it would come sooner or later."

Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this article.

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