Scholar, Historian, American Legend: Dr John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)

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Dr John Hope Franklin was a 1935 A.B. graduate of Fisk University in Nashville, TN, then earned his M.A. (1936) and Ph.D. (1939) from Harvard University. [For reference, W.E.B. DuBois also graduated from Fisk (1888) and was the first Black to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard (1895).] Franklin's doctoral dissertation, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860, planted the seed for his classic 1947 work, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (subtitle later changed to "A History of African-Americans"). This book, now in its eighth edition, was written originally during his four-year tenure at North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University, in Durham. While he conducted much of the groundwork then at the National Archives in Washington, DC, he was supported by his beloved wife, Aurelia, as she worked in the college library.

One can read about the extraordinary life of Dr Franklin everywhere this weekend, perhaps beginning with his three-screen New York Times obituary, Jane Stancill's Wednesday afternoon News & Observer article and resources therein, or the Jeff Edgers' and Laurie Willis' 1998 News & Observer article on Franklin's election as Tar Heel of the Year documenting how he was still fighting racial issues and conflict during the 15 months after President Clinton appointed him to "The President's Initiative on Race" in 1997.

However, the website above contains photos, letters, and other historical artifacts documenting Dr Franklin's connection to NCCU over the years. I wish to extend my gratitude to university archivist and historian, André Vann, in providing these treasures for all of us and working with writer Cynthia Fobert and Office of Public Relations Director Miji Bell in drafting the copy, the graphics wiz that is Chantal Winston, and ITS specialist Mike Render for site functionality.

In our neck of the woods, we've all been mourning the loss and celebrating the life of historian and civil rights legend, Dr John Hope Franklin. Dr Franklin passed away on Wednesday morning at Duke University Medical Center of complications from congestive heart failure. He was 94.

Dr Franklin, or John Hope as he preferred to be called, will forever be recognized as one of the most influential African Americans of the 20th century. Franklin is perhaps best known as a historical scholar for his 1947 treatise, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans.

Jane Stancill wrote in the News & Observer:

His scholarship helped ensure that no American history book could be complete without the story of African-Americans, and that America had to confront the reality of slavery and segregation in its past.

He was at the forefront of some of the biggest turning points in the nation's civil rights history. In 1953, he helped NAACP lawyers with research for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation case. In 1965, he joined a group of historians who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery. Five decades after his masterpiece was published, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997 to lead a national initiative on race.

The two Durham universities where Franklin had been on faculty have excellent online remembrances of this legend. Of course, I am partial to the outstanding site put up by my aforementioned colleagues at North Carolina Central University. From the introductory page:

Franklin was teaching at Saint Augustine's College in Raleigh in 1943 when he contacted North Carolina Central University founder Dr. James E. Shepard regarding selective service and also, the potential to teach at North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University).

Dr. Shepard was the only African-American to serve on the Selective Service Board. In this role, he was in a position to excuse Franklin, who was a committed pacifist, from service during World War II. Franklin would later write in his autobiography about the contradiction of fighting in Europe for human rights denied to black people in the United States.

Shepard recognized Franklin's brilliance. He had him excused from service and brought him to his Durham campus to teach in the history department. It was during his tenure as a history professor at NCC from 1943 to 1947 that Franklin wrote the first edition of his seminal work From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans.

The 1998 N&O article (only just added online this week) describes in greater detail, while at dinner with colleagues, Franklin's recollection of how his move from St. Aug's to NCC transpired:

At the table, talk turned to Franklin's days at St. Augustine's in the early '40s. He had just finished his doctorate at Harvard and his first book. But Franklin had a conflict with the school's white president, the Rev. Edgar H. Goold. In the past, Goold had condescendingly advised him to stay humble. On this occasion, Franklin asked Goold to write a letter to the draft board exempting him from the army. In 1941, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Franklin had tried to volunteer for what he had been told was a national emergency. He was turned away because he was black. After that, Franklin was determined not to serve. But in 1943, when he asked Goold to write the letter, the president refused. "The army might be good for you," he said. "It might teach you to hang up your clothes."

Franklin stormed out of the office, slamming the door. He phoned James E. Shepard, the president of North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham, and found himself another job.

"Weren't you angry?" asked Debi Hamlin, Franklin's assistant.

"For a day," he said. "The next day I just moved on."

[For those who read here about science and medicine, I'll have another post on James E Shepard at another time. Shepard received a graduate pharmacy degree (PhG) from Raleigh's Leonard School of Medicine at Shaw University in 1904. From 1880 to 1918, Leonard trained over 400 of the most influential Black physicians (and about a hundred pharmacists) to provide care to people, especially in rural areas, to whom many white physicians would not minister. The 1910 Flexner Report that defined the standards for US medical education required upgrades to Black medical schools that led, arguably (PDF), to the collapse of five such medical schools, leaving on those at Howard University and Meharry Medical College today. Historical evidence supports that Flexner was in favor of maintaining and building the programs of these two medical schools but this remains a point of contention among historians of Black US medical education.]

From Franklin's obituary posted at the Duke University's extensive remembrance site, the institution where he finished his career as a James B Duke Emeritus Professor of History and is recognized with the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies:

In January 2005, he spoke at Duke at the celebration of his 90th birthday, displaying the fire that motivated him throughout his long life. While others at the event talked about the past and reminisced about his accomplishments, Franklin focused squarely on the future. He described the event, held the same day as President George W. Bush's second inauguration, as a "counter-inaugural," and gave a talk in the form of a letter to a fictional white man he called "Jonathan Doe."

He recounted some of the historical inequalities in the United States and recalled some of his own experiences with racism. He said, for example, that the evening before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, a woman at his club in Washington, D.C., asked him to get her coat. Around the same time, a man at a hotel handed Franklin his car keys and told him to get his car.

"I patiently explained to him that I was a guest in the hotel, as I presumed he was, and I had no idea where his automobile was. And, in any case, I was retired," Franklin said. Both of these incidents occurred when he was in his 80s.

I note this particular anecdote because I first learned of Franklin's death on Facebook from journalist Barry Yeoman.

Barry noted that he was fortunate to stand behind Dr Franklin as he cast his 2008 presidential ballot for Barack Obama. What an amazing moment in history that must have been.

This YouTube video from Duke shows Franklin's commentary on the nomination of Obama, the election of Obama and, here, Obama's April 2008 comments upon meeting Franklin (yes, there is a science aspect to this post: Franklin felt that caloric restriction contributed to his long life).

I am sad to say that I never had the pleasure of meeting Dr Franklin despite living in the same town as he for almost ten years. But every time I went into my independent local bookstore to pick up a book on Black history to support my personal continuing education, there was always Dr Franklin's warm face smiling back at me from the jacket of his last book, his autobiography.

So, next on my reading list are From Slavery to Freedom and 2005's Mirror to America, the autobiography by this remarkable man. A final quote from Stancill's article:

"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."

It's always interesting to me to look back at how a week's blogging ultimately seems to assume a theme even when one is not trying. For example, I'd been wanting to write a post about the first interracial collegiate basketball game in the South and meant to do it exactly on 12 March for the 65th anniversary. I missed that goal, but then DrugMonkey's post, Major, Jack, Willie, and Warren, on African American sports pioneers let me to write about The Secret Game between Duke and the then-North Carolina College for Negroes and the great Coach John McLendon.

Franklin began his academic career with one and then completed it with the other.

In that post, I also noted that The Secret Game author and historian Scott Ellsworth is best known in scholarly circles for his book on the 1921 race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Turns out that Franklin, as a child growing up in Oklahoma, witnessed those very 1921 race riots as his father's law practice in Tulsa was destroyed.

In writing about women in the STEM disciplines for the Diversity in Science carnival, the woman I chose to profile, Dr Geraldine Pittman Woods, was another Harvard Ph.D. (well, Radcliffe to be precise) who worked to increase minority representation in the biological sciences. I had no sooner pressed "Publish" on those posts when Barry Yeoman a Twitter bud Ayse informed me of Franklin's passing.

We've strayed a bit from our general theme but I hope you've found this week of reflection enjoyable. I know that I have gained much from writing these posts, both emotionally and intellectually.


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JH Franklin told an interesting story, on NPR, a few years ago. His research took him to archives across the South to study original documents pertaining to slavery. (For those who do not know, archives house rare, sometimes one-of-a-kind, documents; so one cannot simply walk in and look through the material as you can in a library.)

His first stop was in the not-so-deep south (Virginia?) and, when he presented his credentials the archivist said he could work there; but they weren't set-up to accommodate his kind so he should come back in a little while. When he returned, they had a desk in a closet for him so he could work without bothering the other people.

Then he went to Alabama, where the archivist welcomed him and said he could just get to work. He looked around and saw several people working at tables on one side of the room, and several empty tables on the other side. So, he headed towards the vacant tables; but the archivist said "You can't work over there. That is the south side and it becomes unbearably hot as the day goes on. If you come with me I will introduce you to the other scholars, over there."(!)