Saturday, 2:15 PM
John Hope Franklin, revered historian, dies at 94
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff
John Hope Franklin, the revered historian who chronicled the struggles of black Americans and the country’s efforts to deal with race, died today in Durham, N.C. He was 94.
Dr. Franklin, whose best-known book, “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans” (“African Americans” in its most recent printing) has gone through eight editions and is generally considered the leading text on the subject, had a sense of black history lived as well as written.
His father, one of the first black lawyers in Oklahoma, had argued before the Supreme Court, been an outspoken opponent of segregation, and had his office burned down by race rioters. Dr. Franklin carried on his father’s work, serving as an adviser to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, helping write the brief the NAACP submitted to the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision that ruled segregated schools unconstitutional.
As he wrote in his 1993 book, “The Color Line,” “race is a problem that not only has been with me throughout a lifetime, but one that has been with this country throughout its lifetime. To suggest that the problem of the twenty-first century will be the problem of the color line is not to ignore the changes that have occurred in this as well as in other centuries. It is merely to take notice of the obvious fact that the changes have not been sufficient to eliminate the color line as a problem, arguably the most tragic and persistent social problem in the nation’s history.”
President Barack Obama said Dr. Franklin’s legacy will endure.
“Because of the life John Hope Franklin lived, the public service he rendered, and the scholarship that was the mark of his distinguished career, we all have a richer understanding of who we are as Americans and our journey as a people,’’ Obama said in a statement today. ‘‘Dr. Franklin will be deeply missed. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to his loved ones, as our nation mourns his loss.”
Harvard University Drew G. Faust, a historian of the American South who described Dr. Franklin as a friend and colleague for more than two decades, said he ‘‘changed the way we understand the history of race and slavery in America.’’
‘‘His work helped make possible an expansion of freedom and justice that has continued from Brown v. Board ... to last fall’s election,’’ said Faust, who invited Dr. Franklin to speak at her 2007 inauguration. ‘‘We are all diminished by his loss.’’
The son of Buck Colbert Franklin and Mollie Lee (Parker) Franklin, he was born on Jan. 2, 1915, in Rentiersville, Okla. He received his BA at Fisk University in Nashville. Dr. Franklin had intended to emulate his father and practice law, but a teacher at Fisk urged him to pursue history and loaned him $500 when he was admitted to Harvard. He earned both his master’s and PhD degrees there.
He taught at Fisk, North Carolina Central University, Howard University, Brooklyn College, and the University of Chicago. Upon attaining emeritus status at Chicago, he became James B. Duke professor of history and professor of law at Duke University. Dr. Franklin also served as visiting professor at Harvard, Cornell, Wisconsin, California, Hawaii and Cambridge universities. At Cambridge, he had held the prestigious Pitt professorship of American history and institutions.
In addition to “From Slavery to Freedom” and “The Color Line,” his books include “The Emancipation Proclamation,” “The Militant South,” “The Free Negro in North Carolina,” “Reconstruction After the Civil War,” “A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North,” “George Washington Williams: A Biography,” and “Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988.
Dr. Franklin published his autobiography, ‘Mirror to America,’’ in 2005.
Universally known to friends and colleagues as “John Hope,” Dr. Franklin was noted for his Southern graciousness and talent for friendship (he annually sent out 600 Christmas cards). Those qualities complemented an Old Testament righteousness that could make him a formidable figure in debate. Outside the classroom, his main interest lay in his greenhouse, where he cultivated some 700 varieties of orchids, including one named John Hope Franklin, developed in his honor by an Illinois grower and registered in 1976.
Dr. Franklin was reputed to be academic America’s leading commencement honoree, having received more than 100 honorary degrees. In addition, he was Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities in 1976 and served as president of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa and the Southern Historical Association.
He chaired President Clinton’s Initiative on Race. In 1995, President Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor. That same year the NAACP awarded him its Spingarn Medal, for distinguished lifetime achievement by an African American.
The last honor was a particularly gratifying one for Dr. Franklin, who could remember having to be spirited into the Louisiana State Archives on V-J Day, as that was the only time, with all others out celebrating, that he could enter the otherwise-segregated facility.
In an even more remarkable instance of the depredations of Jim Crow, Dr. Franklin learned in that year that black Americans had fewer rights in their land than Nazi soldiers did. Traveling in an overcrowded train in North Carolina, he noted that the next car was empty but for four or five men. He asked if some of the black passengers might be allowed to sit there. Absolutely not, he was told, that was reserved for whites — even if, as was the case here, the whites were German prisoners of war.
“They thought this was the funniest thing,” Dr. Franklin recalled half a century later.
He is survived by a son, John Whittington Franklin. Duke will hold a celebration of his life and of his late wife Aurelia Franklin on June 11 in Duke Chapel in honor of their 69th wedding anniversary.