John Hope Franklin: An Appreciation

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[National News]

The world lost one of America’s finest historians and civil rights legends, John Hope Franklin, this week as he succumbed to congestive heart failure in a Durham, N.C. hospital.

Family and friends were at the bedside of the 94-year-old eminent black scholar when he passed the torch to a younger generation of academics and educators.

What was so special about Dr. Franklin?

Most importantly, the wise African American elder witnessed so much cultural and political history in the last century where his people had come of age. He was born January 2, 1915 in Rentiesville, Oklahoma. He was from solid pioneer stock, with his example coming from his father, Buck, achieving stature as a lawyer and eventually the first black judge to sit on the Oklahoma District Court bench.

Totally aware of the world, he knew the brutality and terror of hate, noting the many occasions of vigilante justice and lynching in the area. Still, as a young boy, he saw a mob of whites destroy his family home in the bloody Tulsa race riot of 1921, where 40 souls perished, largely Blacks, following a rumor of a young Black man raping a white teenage girl in a fright elevator.

During a time when so many black boys were crushed underneath the heel of white hate and Jim Crow, Dr. Franklin possessed a deep thirst for knowledge and academics. First he attended Fisk University, a black college, and received his undergraduate degree in 1935. He earned a master’s and doctorate degree from Harvard University before launching into a superior academic career at several institutions, including Fisk University, St. Augustine’s College, North Carolina Central University, Howard University.

After concluding a lengthy stint at Howard from 1947 to 1956, he was named chairman of Brooklyn College’s History Department. He served in a similar post as chairman at the University of Chicago from 1967 to 1970. At Chicago, he was appointed the John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor from 1969 to 1982, when he assumed the role of Professor Emeritus. It was a career of academic firsts with Dr. Franklin becoming the chair of a history department of a mainstream white university.

Dr. Franklin always spoke about scholars and academics having a personal agenda, especially if you were African American or minority. For him, effective scholarship meant getting out of the classroom. He took on the important cause of social activism when he joined Thurgood Marshall’s legal team to provide vital historical research in convincing the Supreme Court to ban segregated school schools in 1954.

During the civil rights era, he befriended all of the pivotal names in the courageous struggle to secure human rights foe all Americans. As a seminal figure in scholarship and academics, he was a mentor to many generations of young educators and historians.

As a young journalist in the 1970s, I turned to him for wisdom on matters both racial and educational, including several articles researched for Ida Lewis’ Encore newsmagazine on inferior urban schools, affirmative action, and busing. While a New York Daily News reporter, I met him once at a ritzy Urban League function and sometimes used him as a source on pieces about quotas, quality education, and the high rate of dropouts from inner city schools. He was insightful, informative, fatherly and analytical.

His scholarship and research put Dr. Franklin head and shoulders above many in his field. The books, full of historical detail and intellect, include The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South, The Free Negro in North Carolina, Reconstruction After The Civil War, and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Anti-bellum North. His most popular book is the classic From Slavery To Freedom: A History of African Americans, now in its seventh edition. In 1993, he published The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-first Century. His latest book, My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, is an autobiography of his father edited with his son.

Dr. Franklin was active in numerous professional and education organizations, as well as serving on many national commissions and delegations. Among his many honors, he was awarded the 1984 Jefferson Medal, the 1993 Charles Frankel Prize for contributions to the humanities, the 1995 Organization of American Historians’ Award for Outstanding Achievement, the 1995 NAACP’s Spingarn Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Upon learning of the announcement of Dr. Franklin’s death, Speaker Nancy Pelosi released the following statement on behalf of the U.S. Congress: "John Hope Franklin successfully bridged the gap between theory and practice. That was never more evident than his scholarly work on President Bill Clinton’s Task Force on Race – for which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, his invaluable work on the history of African Americans, and his seminal research used in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education. Let us honor the lasting legacy of John Hope Franklin by maintaining the vibrancy of our nation through our commitment to progress and equality for all."


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