Monday, 30 March 2009

Death of John Hope Franklin

by Kathryn Hadley

The historian and civil rights activist John Hope Franklin died last week (March 25th), aged 94. He was particularly well-known for his efforts to fight for racial equality in the United States, for his work on the 1954 Supreme Court decision which overturned America’s legalised ‘separate but equal’ apartheid, and for his book From Slavery to Freedom, first published in 1947, which sold over 3.5 million copies.

John Hope Franklin was born in Rentiesville, Oklahoma, one of the entirely black areas of the oil boom-town Tulsa. His father, Buck Franklin, was a lawyer and had moved to Rentiesville after being forbidden to practice in Louisiana; his mother, Molly Parker Franklin, was a teacher. He was named after the black activist and leader of the Niagara Movement (the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), John Hope, and was brought up in the midst of racial hatred and violent for black rights. His father’s office in Tulsa was notably burnt down during Tulsa’s race riots in 1921.

John Hope Franklin attended a segregated high school in Tulsa and thereafter the all-black Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee. Following his graduation, in 1935, the white history lecturer, Ted Currier, borrowed some money in order to finance Franklin’s studies for an MA and PhD in history at Harvard. After completing his PhD, in 1941, Franklin returned to teach at Fisk and, in 1943, he published his first book The Free Negro in North Carolina. Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom, published four years later, was groundbreaking, not only because it was written by a black historian, but also because Franklin, for the first time, refused to treat the history of African-Americans as different to that of other Americans. Franklin published numerous other books, including The Militant South, in 1956, and A Southern Odyssey, in 1976, which focused primarily on the study of the attitudes of America’s white population, suggesting that the institution of slavery grew from and encouraged an ethos of violence among white people.

Franklin also held many groundbreaking posts at various universities, both in the United States and abroad. He taught at Howard University, in Washington DC, until 1956, and thereafter was nominated chair of the department of history of Brooklyn College, as the first African-American head at a predominantly white university. In 1962, he was Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University. In 1964, however, he moved to the University of Chicago to become professor of history and later chair of the department. In 1970, he was appointed John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor, a post which he held for twelve years. He was the first black man to deliver a paper to the Southern Historical Association and later became president, in 1970. Franklin was also the first black president of the American Historical Association. In 1982, he was appointed James B Duke Professor of History at Duke University.

In 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian prize, by Bill Clinton. Two years later, the president nominated him as the head of his Initiative on Race. A celebration of his life will be organised on June 11th in the chapel of Duke University in honour of his 69th wedding anniversary to Aurelia Franklin, who died in 1999.

Duke University had also set up a John Hope Franklin memorial website:

Despite the momentous changes in legislation and attitudes towards racial segregation, which John Hope Franklin witnessed during his lifetime, he believed that the fight was not yet over. For the latest views on the situation of African-Americans in the United States today, read our article on the progress of the civil rights movement through its most prominent body, the NAACP, which celebrates its centenary this year The Long Road to Equality for African-Americans

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