John Hope Franklin: Pre-eminent scholar of black American history who played a vital role in the fight for civil rights

If America's agonising but ultimately uplifting racial journey found expression in a single person, it was John Hope Franklin: participant, teacher, role model, but above all peerless chronicler of the black man's experience in the story of the United States.

His academic achievements alone, spanning more than 70 years, established him as the country's premier black historian, inspiration of a younger generation of scholars like Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West.

His most famous book was From Slavery to Freedom, published in 1947, selling over 3.5m copies and translated into half a dozen languages. It remains a classic, perhaps the classic work of African-American studies, but was just one of a score of books he wrote or edited in a teaching career that took him from his adopted home of North Carolina to Howard University in Washington, Brooklyn College in New York, the University of Chicago, and finally back to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Along the way Franklin collected 130 honorary degrees, and put in shorter teaching stints in more than a dozen other universities in the US and abroad – including Harvard and Cambridge, as well as colleges in China, Australia and Zimbabwe. Everywhere, his first-hand experience of many of the events he wrote about gave his scholarship a unique resonance and edge.

Born in Oklahoma, the son of the first black judge to sit on a state court, Franklin witnessed the 1921 race riot in Tulsa, among the bloodiest such incidents in US history, in which at least 39 people, and perhaps as many as 300, were killed.

He might have followed his father into the law, had it not been for Ted Currier, a white professor at the historically black Fisk University in Nashville Tennessee where Franklin graduated summa cum laude in 1935. Recognising the young man's aptitude, Currier persuaded him to pursue history instead, lending him $500 to help pay for postgraduate studies at Harvard, where Franklin was one of a mere handful of black students when he took a PhD in 1941. Two years later his first book appeared, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860.

In his early years as a historian, racial discrimination was ever present. Long afterwards, Franklin would tell students how he researched From Slavery to Freedom in segregated libraries in the South, forced to sit at a different table from whites and barred from using the services of female white librarians.

For part of that time, moreover, he lived in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, giving him a direct personal taste of the state where Jim Crow ruled most ruthlessly. Two decades later, alongside Martin Luther King, he took part in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights for blacks, one of the pivotal moments of the civil-rights struggle.

But well before that, Franklin had rendered perhaps his most precious service to the movement, providing the research that helped the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and its lead lawyer Thurgood Marshall win the watershed Brown v Board of Education ruling of 1954 from the US Supreme Court, ending racial segregation in America's public schools.

His combination of meticulous scholarship and direct involvement in events made him uniquely able to present the history of slavery and the South for what it really was. As Nell Irvin Painter, professor at Princeton and another leading light of a younger generation of black historians, told The New York Times, Franklin "grasped the complexity of Southern public life as shaped by the horror of personal slavery." He was, she said, "the first American historian to reckon the price owed in violence, autocracy and militarism."

His career, inevitably, was a catalogue of firsts. He was, inter alia, the first black head of department at a predominantly white university (his appointment at Brooklyn College in 1956 was front-page news in The New York Times), and the first black chairman of the history faculty of the University of Chicago. He was the first black president of the American Historical Association, and the first African-American allowed to deliver a paper to the traditionally segregated Southern Historical Association. By then Franklin was akin to a national institution. "Even if I had wanted to," he once reflected, "I could not have avoided being a public activist."

But no first gave him greater joy than the one consummated on 4 November 2008 with the election of Barack Obama as the country's first black president. It was something he had dreamed of with his parents back in Oklahoma but never expected to see, even in a life that lasted 94 years. Obama's victory, he said, was "the closest thing to a peaceful revolution in our entire history."

As perhaps befitted a historian, his hobbies were also of a somewhat reflective variety. He was a keen fisherman and a life-long enthusiast of orchids – so much so that one species of phalaenopsis, or "moth" orchids, is named after him.

But America's legacy of race would be ever present, even when the formal battle for equal rights had long been won. In 1995 Franklin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honour. The night before he was to receive it from Bill Clinton at the White House, he held a party at the Cosmos Club, a venerable establishment in Washington DC (and of which, it almost goes without saying, he was the first black member).

At one point in the evening, a white woman walked up to him and demanded that Franklin get her coat. He politely demurred, suggesting she ask one of the uniformed attendants. To which she replied, "If you aren't getting my coat, you shouldn't be here." In 2006, three years before he died, Franklin summed up that and a thousand other racial experiences. "Yes, we've come some distance. But we've so much further to go."

Rupert Cornwell

John Hope Franklin, US historian, born Rentiesville, Oklahoma 2 January 1915; married 1939 Aurelia Whittington (one son); died Durham, North Carolina 25 March 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?