In Memoriam: Dr. John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)
‘His Genius Could Not Be Denied’
By Hilary Hurd Anyaso
“Warm, generous, compassionate, a giant among American historians,” is how one University of Chicago colleague of Dr. John Hope Franklin remembers him.
Dr. Neil Harris, the Preston and Sterling Morton Professor Emeritus at UChicago, where Franklin chaired the history department, said in a statement, “John Hope enjoyed people, and people enjoyed John Hope. Everything he did, from his cooking to his orchid growing, was extraordinary. Lucky indeed it was to know him and be put in touch with the energies and spirit of a great man.”
Ailing for some time, Franklin, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University, died yesterday of congestive heart failure at the age of 94 in Durham, N.C.
Called “a towering historian” by Duke University President Richard Brodhead, Franklin’s scholarship influenced countless scholars and students, and his humble, unassuming nature touched everyone he came in contact with.
“If you’re very fortunate, you get a chance to meet and get to know a person like Dr. Franklin. I always heard that the truly great people are the most approachable and nice; he exemplified that,” says Frank Matthews, co-founder of Diverse: Issues In Higher Education magazine, who first met Franklin 25 years ago. “The amount of information that he accumulated and retained was truly astounding. His genius could not be denied.”
So impressed with Franklin’s accomplishments as well as his character, Cox, Matthews and Associates, which publishes Diverse, established the John Hope Franklin Awards in 2004 to honor those who have demonstrated the highest commitment to access and excellence in American education. Recipients have included Dr. Johnnetta Cole, Maya Angelou and fellow historian Dr. David Levering-Lewis.
“I can’t think of another person in the academy who was more deserving of having an award named after them than John Hope Franklin,” says Matthews. “He documented our history in a way that I don’t think can ever be replicated.”
Franklin’s scholarship is said to have increased the nation’s understanding and knowledge of African-Americans in its history. A prolific writer, Franklin’s numerous publications include the best-seller From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South and most recently Mirror to America, which chronicles his life.
“His book, From Slavery to Freedom, remains a vital classic and primer as an introduction to African-American history,” says Dr. Peniel Joseph, associate professor of Africana Studies at Brandeis University. “His large corpus of scholarship and civic activism promoting diversity in the academy leaves a monumental legacy for other scholars to follow. Dr. Franklin was that rare combination of exemplary scholar and engaged citizen who sought to promote history and multiculturalism to a larger public.”
A native of Oklahoma, Franklin earned his bachelor’s degree at Fisk University, where he would meet his wife Aurelia. He would go on to earn a master’s and doctorate in history from Harvard University. Franklin taught at a number of institutions, including Fisk, St. Augustine’s College, North Carolina Central University, and Howard University. In 1956 he went to Brooklyn College where he would become the first Black historian to assume full professorship at a traditionally White institution. He also served as chairman of the Department of History. In 1964, he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, serving as chairman of the Department of History from 1967 to 1970. At Chicago, he was the John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor from 1969 to 1982, when he became Professor Emeritus.
Franklin had long been a witness to and active participant in many historic events. From assisting Thurgood Marshall in his preparation for arguing Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 to heading former President Bill Clinton’s Initiative on Race in 1997, Franklin was quoted in Emerge magazine in 1994 as saying, “I think knowing one’s history leads one to act in a more enlightened fashion. I can not imagine how knowing one’s history would not urge one to be an activist.”
In 2006, USA Today quoted Franklin expressing disappointment that to date there was no national monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But Diverse’s Matthews says he’s glad Franklin lived long enough to see the election of the new president. During an interview with Duke University television last fall, Franklin said Barack Obama’s election was “one of the most, if not the most, historic moment in this country’s history.” He said he knew “it would come sooner or later.”
Franklin’s contributions have been acknowledged with numerous awards and more than 130 honorary degrees. He treasured his students and the role of teacher.
Dr. Yohuru Williams, a history professor at Fairfield University and vice president for History Education at the American Institute for History Education, had the opportunity to meet Franklin in 1994 for the taping of a PBS special in his honor.
“He sat around with the mixed group of graduate and undergraduate students after the taping for nearly an hour answering questions and offering suggestions on our work,” recalls Williams. “He was a master teacher and his presence, guidance and scholarship will sorely be missed.”
To pay tribute, Duke University has created a Web page in Franklin’s honor. Visit www.duke.edu/johnhopefranklin