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A Preeminent Scholar, University Professor, Author, Chairman of the President’s Commission on Race and Historian depicting the Black Experience in America.
John Hope Franklin regained the national spotlight as the chairman of the presidential advisory board for ‘One America: the President’s Initiative on Race’ during the nineties. But he has been a chronicler of American History, particularly Black American History, for all of his professional life. His scholarly work, “From Slavery to Freedom” is ranked as one of the authoritative works on the subject and he has since written voluminous books on Black history that continues to build on a solid foundation of Black people’s contribution to civilization.
Before his retirement, he was Professor of Legal History Duke’s law school, an immeasurable distance in time and space from Rentiesville, Oklahoma, where he was born in 1915. During his early life, he did not show much academic enthusiasm, but as he watched his father (a lawyer) closely, he ended up directing his focus towards his father’s profession, while retaining some of his own. He majored in history and minored in law. His first book, “The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860,” was published in 1943 but his definitive historical work, “From Slavery to Freedom” was published in 1947.
In the 1950s, Franklin helped the NAACP Legal Defense team prepare for the landmark “Brown” case though law was not his full time career choice. As a renowned history professor, he taught at St. Augustine’s College, North Carolina College at Durham, Howard and Duke Universities, and was chairman of the history department at Brooklyn College and University of Chicago. In addition, he served as visiting professor at several universities in the United States and abroad including Harvard, Cornell, Berkeley, the Universities of Wisconsin, California, and Hawaii, the Salzburg Seminar of American Studies in Austria, Cambridge University in England and the Universities of Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Australia and Nigeria.
He not only concentrated the essence of his professional career on teaching, but was also actively involved in education and professional organizations, and served on many national commissions and delegations. Franklin served on the boards of “The Journal of Negro History;” as president of the American Studies Association; the Southern Historical Association; the Organization of American Historians; the American Historical Association; Fisk University; the Chicago Public Library; and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.
Through his extensive academic research and analytic approach to historical data, Franklin corrected some of the recorded history relating to Blacks in America and Africa, and has shattered established myths while routing out certain “facts” that had been accepted as “gospel.” As an example, he responded to questions about Thomas Jefferson, in a way that showed the third president to be, not what White historians claimed he was, when viewed outside his scholarly context.
Franklin stated that the words “all men are created equal,” as declared by Jefferson on one hand – and written into the U.S. Constitution – can’t be reconciled with the institution of slavery, since Jefferson owned slaves. Furthermore, he went on to say that Jefferson personifies the United States and its history. He drew a sharp distinction between his works as a political scientist, his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, him being the founder of the University of Virginia, and his conduct as a man. But when asked if he forgave Jefferson, Franklin reportedly said, “I’m a forgiving man; therefore, I forgive him for what he did.” He (Franklin) added that he would not forgive him (Jefferson) though, on the grounds that he’s a man of his times; that’s an escape hatch.
He has been the recipient of many awards, honors and honorary degrees including the Jefferson Medal in 1984 by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education; the Trumpet Award from Turner Broadcasting Corporation; the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal; the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and the Encyclopedia Britannica Gold Medal for the Dissemination of Knowledge, in addition to honorary degrees from more than one hundred colleges and universities.
Franklin’s private life has been very private; he was totally committed to his chosen profession and career. As the chairman of the Fullbright Board, he said, “International education is my big interest,” because he believes that it transcends prejudice and is the best path to peace.
Willis Edwards of the NAACP National Board of Directors issued the following statement on the passing of the noted historian, scholar and renowned university professor: “John Hope Franklin’s life was an inspiring blend of gentlemanly acts, activism and intellect. His work exposed the truth, made us proud and caused us to reach higher. His career of scholarship, teaching and advocacy spanned more than 70 years and we all are indebted, yet appreciative of that gift. He was a barrier breaker, a lesser-known champion of social justice whose impact still looms large. The world is a little less brilliant because of his passing. ?While a student at Fisk University in the 1930s, Franklin would have personal encounters with James Weldon Johnson, a former NAACP General Secretary and author the Negro national anthem, ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.’”