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.

News
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
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

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes