John Hope Franklin, renowned scholar of black history, dies

Wednesday, March 25, 2009 | 5:59 p.m. CDT; updated 9:43 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 25, 2009

RALEIGH, N.C. — John Hope Franklin, a revered Duke University historian and scholar of life in the South and the African-American experience in the United States, died Wednesday. He was 94.

Duke spokesman David Jarmul said Franklin died of congestive heart failure at the university's hospital in Durham.


"John Hope Franklin was a tremendous leader, historian and friend to North Carolina and to the nation. He personified giving and his work to advance the understanding of African-American contributions was unmatched by any other. He will be sadly missed." — North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue.

"With the passing of John Hope Franklin, North Carolina has lost a great scholar and a moral compass for all of us. He inspired with his words and with his teaching, and he set an unsurpassed example of courage, leadership and commitment. From John Hope Franklin we learned about history, but we also learned the way to chart a new path of justice and opportunity for our state and our nation." — North Carolina Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton.


"Dr. Franklin was a worldwide figure, a seminal author and a man of immeasurable insight. We were privileged in North Carolina for so long to have near immediate access to such a rich mind. We will all miss his lessons and we mourn for his loss." — House Speaker Joe Hackney.

 "John Hope Franklin lived for nearly a century and helped define that century. A towering historian, he led the recognition that African-American history and American history are one. With his grasp of the past, he spent a lifetime building a future of inclusiveness, fairness and equality. Duke has lost a great citizen and a great friend." — Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead.

 "The world has lost a brilliant scholar. A proud Oklahoman, John Hope Franklin was among the greatest historians of our time. His seminal work, From Slavery to Freedom, is one of the great books of the 20th century, but John Hope Franklin's entire life was dedicated to the pursuit of truth. I was, and am, a devoted admirer of his work. This remarkable, legendary man will be sorely missed, but his contributions to our understanding of history will last forever." — Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry.

 "Dr. Franklin's voice will certainly not be silenced by his passing. His legacy is one that will live on through his passion for educating the generations of Americans who have sought his wisdom." — Julius Pegues, Chairman of the Board of Directors for the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation.


"One of the great stories of his life is his dignity in the face of the kind of rampant racism that existed. When he first did research at Duke in the 1940s, he could use the manuscript collection, but he could not eat his lunch or use the bathroom because it was segregated. And he never lost his sense of empowerment in the face of that kind of treatment." — Bill Chafe, past president of Organization of American Historians and a history professor at Duke.

 "I cannot think of anyone whose scholarly work and passion has enlightened America with more impact on issues related to equity, excellence and diversity. The legacy he leaves is immeasurable." — Charlie Nelms, chancellor of North Carolina Central University.

 "Those of us lucky enough to have shared his University of Chicago years recall his boundless energy, his fairness and probity, and his good humor as he was simultaneously leading a department, traveling the world, running agencies, serving on commissions, giving countless lectures, and offering counsel. 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." — Neil Harris, the Preston and Sterling Morton Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago.


Born and raised in an all-black community in Oklahoma where he was often subjected to humiliating incidents of racism, he was later instrumental in bringing down the legal and historical validations of such a world.

As an author, his book "From Slavery to Freedom" was a landmark integration of black history into American history. As a scholar, his research helped Thurgood Marshall win Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that outlawed the doctrine of "separate but equal" in U.S. public schools.

"It was evident how much the lawyers appreciated what the historians could offer," Franklin later wrote. "For me, and I suspect the same was true for the others, it was exhilarating."

Breaking barriers

Franklin broke numerous color barriers. He was the first black department chair at a predominantly white institution, Brooklyn College; the first black professor to hold an endowed chair at Duke University; and the first black president of the American Historical Association.

Above all, he documented how blacks had lived and served alongside whites since America's birth. Black patriots fought at Lexington and Concord, Franklin pointed out in "From Slavery to Freedom," published in 1947. They crossed the Delaware with Washington and explored with Lewis and Clark. The text sold million of copies and remains required reading in college classrooms.

Late in life, Franklin chaired President Clinton's Initiative on Race and received more than 100 honorary degrees, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Spingarn Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor.

As he aged, Franklin spent more time in the greenhouse behind his home, where he nursed orchids, than in library stacks. He fell in love with the flowers because "they're full of challenges, mystery" — the same reasons he fell in love with history.

In June, Franklin had a small role in the movie based on the book "Blood Done Signed My Name," about the public slaying of a black man in Oxford in 1970. The book's author, Tim Tyson, said at the time he wanted Franklin in the movie "because of his dignity and his shining intelligence."

Wife, editor and rock

Franklin attended historically black Fisk University, where he met Aurelia Whittington, who would be his wife, editor and rock for 58 years until her death in 1999. He planned to follow his father into law, but the lively lectures of a white professor, Ted Currier, convinced him history was his field. Currier borrowed $500 to send Franklin to Harvard University for graduate studies.

Franklin's doctoral thesis was on free blacks in antebellum North Carolina, and his wife spent part of their honeymoon in Washington, D.C., at the Census Bureau, helping him finish his research. The resulting work, "The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860," earned Franklin his doctorate and, in 1943, became his first published book.

Four years later, he completed his seminal work, "From Slavery to Freedom," and accepted a job at Howard University, beginning his long academic career.

Some of his greatest moments of triumph, though, were marred by bigotry.

His joy at being offered the chair of the Brooklyn College history department in 1956 was tempered by his difficulty getting a loan to buy a house in a "white" neighborhood.

In 1985, Franklin was in New York to receive the Clarence Holte Literary Award for his biography of historian George Washington Williams, a 40-year project for which he was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. The next morning, he and his wife were unable to hail a taxi in front of their hotel.

Ten years later, when he was to receive the freedom medal, Franklin hosted a party for some friends at Washington's Cosmos Club, of which he had long been a member. A white woman walked up to him, handed him a slip of paper and demanded that he get her coat. He politely told the woman that any of the uniformed attendants, "and they were all in uniform," would be happy to assist her.

Trying to make a better place to live

Franklin often regarded his country like an exasperated relative, frustrated by racism's stubborn power, yet refusing to give up entirely. "I want to be out there on the firing line, helping, directing or doing something to try to make this a better world, a better place to live," Franklin told The Associated Press in 2005.

In 1993, President Clinton honored Franklin with the Charles Frankel Prize, recognizing scholarly contributions that give "eloquence and meaning ... to our ideas, hopes and dreams as American citizens." Clinton awarded Franklin the Medal of Freedom two years later.

Franklin was born Jan. 2, 1915, in the all-black town of Rentiesville, Oklahoma, where his parents moved in the mistaken belief that separation from whites would mean a better life for their young family.

His father, Buck, was an attorney. His mother, Mollie, a teacher, began taking him to school with her when he was 3. He could read and write by 5; by 6, he first became aware of the "racial divide separating me from white America."

Franklin, his mother and sister Anne were ejected from a train when his mother refused the conductor's orders to move to the overcrowded "Negro" railroad coach. As they trudged through the woods back to Rentiesville, young John Hope began to cry.

His mother pulled him aside and told him, "There was not a white person on that train or anywhere else who was any better than I was. She admonished me not to waste my energy by fretting but to save it in order to prove that I was as good as any of them."


Associated Press national writer Hillel Italie in New York contributed to this report.


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Nathan Stephens March 26, 2009 | 8:41 a.m.

In Africa there is a proverb that would fit this sad occasion, "when an elder dies, it is like a library that burns down." America has lost a prominent scholar but heaven has gained a beautiful flower.

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