In Memoriam: John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)
John Hope Franklin, photographed at Davidson College, in 2002. That year, Davidson awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Letters at their Family Weekend celebration.
On Wednesday, March 25, 2009, John Hope Franklin died of congestive heart failure at the Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. He was 94 years old. Dr. Franklin was the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at the same institution.
As an African American professor working in the field of Black studies (specifically African American literature of the 19th century), I am infinitely grateful to Dr. Franklin. He was a pioneering scholar in African American history, and his work laid the foundation for much of what I and other Black scholars have been able to accomplish. His high visibility as a prolific and well-respected African American history specialist did much to create a broader space within the academy for other Black scholars, as well as to establish African American studies (U.S. Black history, U.S. Black literature, et cetera) as a serious field of scholarly inquiry.
In an interview with The Academy Speaks, Dr. Peniel Joseph, associate professor of Africana Studies at Brandeis University, describes Franklin’s legacy:
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.
John Hope Franklin was born in Rentiesville, Oklahoma. His father was an attorney and his mother was an elementary school teacher. He earned his B.A. at Fisk University, and his M.A. and Ph.D., both in history, from Harvard University. Perhaps his most important scholarly achievement was his groundbreaking study of U.S. Black history, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans. He first published this volume in 1947. Since that time it has sold over 3 million copies. In a NY Times tribute to the late scholar, NYU history professor David Levering Lewis explains the impact of this paradigm-shifting text:
When you think of ‘From Slavery to Freedom,’ there’s before and there’s after, there’s the world before and then we have a basic paradigm shift [...] Before him you had a field of study that had been feeble and marginalized, full of a pretty brutal discounting of the impact of people of color. And he moved it into the main American narrative. It empowered a whole new field of study.
The Times article goes on to describe how Dr. Franklin’s treatment of African American history shaped and transformed the ways that all marginalized histories are now told. Times reporter Peter Applebome explains:
Dr. Lewis and others argue that Dr. Franklin’s work helped empower not just African-American studies, but the whole range of alternative stories — of women, gays, Hispanics, Asians and others — now so much a part of mainstream academia.
Dr. Franklin was the recipient of any number of awards and honors, from both local communities and national organizations, from academic institutions and from the highest government offices in the land. When I think of his accumulated awards, they seem to me an all-too-human effort to give due honor to someone whose contributions can really, truly never be adequately recognized. I have spent the last couple days wish that I had taken the time, at some point during the last years of his life, to send Dr. Franklin a letter of thanks for the the ways that his work has impacted mine and the lives of other Black scholars.
But what words could I use to tell someone that so much of my intellectual life and, indeed, my very occupation — a job that I truly enjoy — might well be inaccessible to me if it wasn’t for him? John Hope Franklin was not the first Black person to study African American history, but his outstanding work in this field made it possible for ever greater numbers of us who are passionate about the culture and history and literature of Black people to actually get paid to write about, teach, and do research in a field that we love.
The best that I can do — indeed, the best that any of us Black folks in academia can ever do — is to build on his legacy, in the quality of our work, in the responsibility that we take as transmitters and creators of knowledge, and in our commitment to principle of scholarly work as a stepping stone to true freedom, the emancipation of the mind.
Rest in peace, Dr. Franklin. Much admiration and many thanks,