WASHINGTON – Dr. John Hope Franklin, one of the most revered and respected historians of the 20th century, died last year of congestive heart failure at the age of 94. But scholars who convened in Washington Thursday for a three-day symposium on Franklin’s life agreed that his memory will forever live through his scholarship.
Franklin’s book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, served as a manuscript for a generation of Blacks determined to end Jim Crow segregation. Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, professor of African American studies at Harvard University and co-author of the book’s latest edition, explained how she had revamped the 63-year-old historical staple.
“One of the things that I try to do with the book is bring new scholarship,” said Higginbotham. “For example, Stephanie Camp has written a book where she talks about the alternative geographies of [runaway] slaves. Women slaves ran away differently from male slaves, so that’s a new way of thinking about runaways.”
The book, emblazoned with a photo of President Barack Obama on the cover, also discusses a number of new subjects such as globalization, Brown v. Board of Education, the Cold War, Hurricane Katrina, and Obama’s election. It also incorporates compelling facts about African-American musical traditions.
“I really enjoyed bringing art and music into the book,” said Higginbotham. “I talk about art, and art becomes a primary source to history. I do the same thing with music. I talk about hip hop as a global phenomenon. In the older edition, art was a separate category.”
Many of the symposium’s presenters worked with Franklin and lauded his commitment to academia and activism.
“What is really remarkable about him is the evolution of his views about slavery and reparations,” said Dr. Charles Ogletree, law professor at Harvard University. “He was always against slavery. But he was skeptical about whether or not reparations was the answer.”
Ogletree worked closely with Franklin while representing the survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot. In 2003, survivors filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma.
An Oklahoma native, Franklin was 6 years old when his family lost everything in the Tulsa riot that killed 50 people by some accounts and hundreds by others. The violence in a prosperous African-American business district of Tulsa known as “Black Wall Street” was precipitated by claims that a Black youth had assaulted a White teenage girl in a downtown elevator.
Franklin served as an expert witness for the case. According to Ogletree, Franklin’s participation in the case caused him to become an ardent supporter of reparations.
“From the moment he embraced the idea of reparations to the day that he died, Dr. Franklin was our most valiant, our most gifted, our most communicative advocate for reparations. I can think of no better way to honor John Hope Franklin’s legacy than to make people appreciate the fact that before he passed away he stood up for reparations,” Ogletree said.
The symposium, hosted by Howard University, placed special emphasis on Franklin’s tenure as a professor at Howard in the history department. Franklin was appointed to the faculty in 1947 when Howard was the epicenter of Black intellectual activity. He stayed until 1956, leaving to become chair of the history department at Brooklyn College in New York.
“We wanted to put a light on those years when Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, the first Black president of Howard University, was building this institution into a first-class university with Alain Locke, Sterling Brown, Ralph Bunche, and Rayford Logan, who actually recruited John Hope Franklin,” said Dr. Jeanne Toungara, associate professor of history at Howard University and the symposium’s organizer.
In the early 1950s, Franklin served on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team led by Thurgood Marshall, a Howard University law school graduate and the legal architect of Brown v. Board of Education. Franklin helped Marshall develop the sociological argument that separate was unequal.
More than a chronicler of history, Franklin was active in making it. As chairman of President Bill Clinton’s task force on race from 1997 to 1998, Franklin helped to stimulate one of the first national conversations on race and discrimination through a series of town hall meetings. Franklin is credited with advancing the race conversation from Black-and-White race relations to a multi-ethnic dialogue, despite criticism for not having an American Indian member on the task force.
“As a historian who is an eminent expert on slavery issues, Dr. Franklin had a very deep understanding of the historical dimensions of the Black-White relationships in this country. But he was also very keenly aware of the need to embrace a more multidimensional discussion about the new realities of race in this country where immigrants are one of the fastest rising demographic groups,” said Lin Lui, former deputy director for policy and research in the Clinton administration, during her keynote address.
Franklin graduated from Fisk University in 1935. He earned both a master’s and doctorate from Harvard University. He was the first African-American president of the foremost American scholarly associations, including Phi Beta Kappa, the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Southern Historical Association. His other published works include: The Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction After the Civil War, A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North, and The Militant South, 1800-1861.