The eminent historian & Harvard grad John Hope Franklin died yesterday of congestive heart failure. He is most well known for his book From Slavery to Freedom, which has sold over 3 million copies since it was first published in 1947.
Franklin was the first black historian to chair a department at a mainstream university. He did so after completing a long stint at a historically black college. His focus on black history as part of American history helped pave the way for African American Studies in the U.S. He also silently opened doors for other African American scholars, recommending Skip Gates for a MacArthur without ever once telling him until they bumped into on another at a dinner. His research for the NAACP on Brown vs. Board of Ed more publicly opened doors for equality in education at the primary and secondary level as well.
He taught at some of the most prestigious universities in the states and England at a time when African American scholars were largely absent from these institutions, including: UChicago, Harvard, Duke, and Cambridge. His presence in these institutions reminded dominant scholars of black intellectualism and pushed them toward hiring and admissions equality (pushes they are still working on). In many of these places he was the first or second black historian ever hired. As a respected colleague, he also upped the game of historians regardless of race or research focus. He encouraged many to see their work in a new and more inclusive light.
His service to both academe and the nation is long and varied. For many years he served on the editorial board of the Journal of Negro History. A journal that has inspired film series, hip hop songs, and still contains some of the first pieces of AfAM Hisotry within its annals. He also served as President of the following academic organizations: The American Studies Association (1967), the Southern Historical Association (1970), the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa (1973-76), the Organization of American Historians (1975), and the American Historical Association (1979). He sat on the National Council on the Humanities until 1979, when the President appointed him to the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. He also served on the President’s Advisory Commission on Ambassadorial Appointments. In September and October of 1980, he was a United States delegate to the 21st General Conference of UNESCO. He later served as Consultant on American Education in the Soviet Union, was a Fulbright Professor in Australia, and Lecturer in American History in the People’s Republic of China. His service garnered him a place on the 1978 list of Who’s Who (he was #8) for his contributions to American society.
In 1995, he received the first W.E.B. DuBois Award from the Fisk University Alumni Association, the Organization of American Historians’ Award for Outstanding Achievement, the Alpha Phi Alpha Award of Merit, and the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal. That same year, Franklin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton. A sad commentary on the state of racism in America and the ongoing marginalization of academics of color is that one of the female patrons at the dinner in his honor that night mistook him for the coat checker and caused a scene when he politely declined to go fetch her coat. In speaking about the incident later, Franklin also mentioned that a hotel guest at the same hotel he was staying at before meeting with the President, handed him his keys and walked off before Franklin could tell him he was not the valet but rather waiting by the door for his own ride to the White House. He told these stories not out of bitterness but rather to elucidate the ongoing struggle of black people for legitimacy in dominant culture and to encourage those of us with credentialing letters behind our names (PhD, MD, JD, etc.) to continue on in the face of daily discrimination our colleagues would likely not believe b/c the work we can do outweighs the offenses they can heap on us.
In 1996, Professor Franklin was elected to the Oklahoma Historians Hall of Frame and in 1997 he received the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award.
While he welcomed these acknowledgments of his work, Franklin was never more happy than when he was interacting with black activists and scholars from across the disciplines. He worked with Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, and so many others in the civil rights movement and the activists of its legacies. Many of the second generation AFAM scholars also worked with Franklin. And as stories about people’s reactions to his passing circulate, scholars, teachers, artists, writers, etc. are all coming forward with memories of the time they met Franklin in the halls, at a dinner, or just signing a copy of his book for them, where he left a lasting positive impression.
In speaking about his own goals as a historian, Franklin once said:
My challenge was to weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly
His loss is being felt throughout the academic community and I hope will be noted at the OAH going on now in Seattle. He certainly did cross borders with strength and intelligence that inspired and continues to inspire so many of us even tho many of those borders still remain.