Dr. John Hope Franklin chronicled the experiences of African-Americans like no one before him, forcing America to recognize Black history as American history. His contributions innumerable, his impact abiding. Here, scholars Robert Harris, David Levering-Lewis, John French and Clifton Wharton Jr. write about the celebrated scholar and activist.
The Consummate Scholar
By Robert L. Harris Jr.
Dr. John Hope Franklin was both proud and humble. He was fiercely proud of his race and was a “race man” in the best sense of the term. He was not a racial chauvinist or a militant but was committed to the advancement of Black people. His generation of “race men” knew who they were. They were comfortable with themselves while in the company of both Black and White people. Unlike some Black scholars of my generation, he did not suffer from the “only Negro in the room” syndrome. He was gracious in acknowledging other Black people in his presence. He made them feel comfortable and empowered. He elevated fellow Black scholars in the presence of others.
Much has been made of Dr. Franklin’s leadership of the major historical associations but little is said about the position he held as one of the vice presidents, along with the venerable Dr. Benjamin Quarles, of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History during the 1970s. It was a largely honorific position but very important to the organization that he lend his name and prestige to the group that Carter G. Woodson organized in 1915 and that supported Dr. Franklin’s work over the years. He was an active participant in the annual meetings of ASALH and delighted in seeing old friends and former students.
Dr. Franklin’s scholarship was as impeccable as his manners. Although humble and somewhat self-effacing, he took pride in the abilities and accomplishments of African-Americans and was not shy about making certain that African- Americans and everyone else knew about them. He devoted his life, his scholarship and his career to making sure that this story was told accurately in all its agony and its glory. Dr. Franklin especially wanted this nation to know what it had done to his ancestors as well as its obligation to right the wrongs imposed on African-Americans. Although he did not vigorously push the point in the changing climate surrounding affirmative action, he supported compensatory change. The tide has shifted from the nation’s obligation to right the wrongs of the past to the mantra of diversity, which looks to the future and to the benefit for society more than to the past and the accumulated disadvantages experienced by those who suffered from enslavement, discrimination, segregation, violence and denigration.
John Hope Franklin was the consummate scholar. Although he drew on his scholarship to address current problems, he did not deliberately search for a “useable past.” He was concerned about getting the story right. One of the things that I liked best about Dr. Franklin was that he kept an open mind. Many scholars of his generation clung to the term “Negro,” and some even to the designation “Colored.” But Dr. Franklin accepted the need for a different designation that was more self-defining. He embraced the term “Black” and later “African-American.” Although he was a student of history, he was never stuck in the past.
— Dr. Robert L. Harris Jr. is a professor of African-American history and vice provost emeritus at Cornell University.
By David Levering-Lewis
Looking back over Dr. John Hope Franklin’s career, one can espy a trajectory arcing in the later years out of history into law and public policy and now, it appears, into the privilege of prophecy. Dr. Franklin’s book, The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-First Century, might be said to be inspired by Santayana’s well-worn premonition about the past and [W.E.B.] Du Bois’s repeatedly invoked admonition about the future problem of the color line. Reviewing what Dr. Franklin saw as the national spoliation of the Reagan years, he took on the new conservatives with a vengeance, forecasting many dire consequences to come from the continual evasion as a country of the costs of poverty and racism.
Writing as a moralist who is a historian, Dr. Franklin enjoins us at the end of this provocative little book: “Perhaps the very first thing we need to do as a nation and as individual members of society is to confront our past and see it for what it is … . Having done that, we should then make a good-faith effort to turn our history around so that we can avoid doing what we have done for so long.” Because of John Hope Franklin’s immense standing as a scholar and engaged intellectual, President Bill Clinton called upon him to serve as chair of the advisory board for the president’s Initiative on Race, whose charge was to encourage frank discussion of the American perennial problem. Franklin’s exemplary conception of the role and obligation of the scholar-citizen was put into play as he traveled the country in order to inspire a great dialogue about race and opportunity.
President Clinton’s bestowal of the Medal of Freedom was a fitting recompense for the historian’s superlative service to his country. Dr. Franklin lived just long enough to see Barack Obama, whom he endorsed with pride, elected the 44th president of the United States. John Hope Franklin is shining proof that the lessons of history can be embodied in the teachings and practice of a life. The John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies, recently established and endowed at Duke University, reifies in brick and mortar this singular American’s lifetime mission to apply the lessons of the past to the immense potential for learning and justice in the future. His example is imperishable.
— Dr. David Levering-Lewis is professor of history at New York University.
An International Scholar
By John D. French
Several things stand out for me as emblematic about Dr. John Hope Franklin that have not yet received the attention I think appropriate if we are to take the measure of the man:
One has to do with Dr. Franklin’s special link to Brazil. There was, of course, the funny story he told about arriving in Brazil for the first time when riots and disturbances were at their height in the United States. He was interviewed, as he disembarked, by a cluster of Brazilian journalists eager to find out how he felt about being in a place without racism and safe from racial violence. And, he says, ‘I am thinking to myself (he would never have been badly bred enough to do so publicly), how come you’re all White and the only Blacks I see here are pushing mops and picking up the trash?’ With the enormous changes that have come with a far more democratic Brazil, he would have the chance to make this point publicly a decade after the publication of From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans in Portuguese translation in 1989.
Dr. Franklin liked to strike up a casual conversation about the latest developments in Brazilian politics. He was especially pleased by the 2002 election of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. This engagement originated, in part, from a family friendship with two Brazilian intellectuals, Eduardo and Marta Suplicy, who were at Stanford University in 1973. This had grown into an ongoing personal connection with this couple of remarkable intellectuals, prominent opponents of the military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985. Linked to the Brazilian Workers’ Party, they would each come to have a significant impact on Brazilian politics: Eduardo as a PT senator from its largest state and Marta as the elected mayor in 2002 of its largest city São Paulo.
Brazil may be the world’s largest leastknown country (fifth in world population) but it fell within Dr. Franklin’s spirited engagement with the past and present as we strive for a more democratic world without base hierarchies of social, racial, ethnic or religious difference. Thus it made complete sense that this most “American” of men, to use our preferred if distorted U.S. terminology, would have a center named after him at Duke that made a place for the rest of the world at the core of its mission: The John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies.
— Dr. John D. French is a professor of history at Duke University.
An Eyewitness Perspective
By Clifton R. Wharton, Jr.
The passing of Dr. John Hope Franklin, the legendary Black intellectual and historian, reminded me of how I first became aware of “Black history.” During the 1930s when my father was stationed as a U.S. Consul in the Canary Islands, Spain, I was tutored by my mother through a correspondence course. She regularly supplemented the formal lessons with her own strong views on our race and systematically injected information in my history lessons about the major contributions of Negroes.
My mother taught me about a wide array of Black high achievers. Negro scientists (George Washington Carver), inventors (Benjamin Banneker, Elijah McCoy and Jan Matzeliger), and educators (Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune) — all were skillfully meshed into my lessons wherever she felt it appropriate. Thus, for me, American Negroes were an unquestioned, important long-standing part of the United States from its very beginning and had made tremendous contributions throughout its history. But I was unaware that this topic was missing from regular history instruction back home in the United States.
My next significant exposure to “Black history” was when I returned to the United States temporarily for home leave. One day my mother took me to hear historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who gave an impassioned speech on the neglect of Negro history in the United States. He spoke of the importance of his National Negro History Week, begun in 1926, the year I was born. His words reinforced my awareness of Black history and made me realize the importance of including the history of my people in the knowledge of the wider American society.
Hence, when in 1946-1947 I was a senior at Harvard University majoring in U.S. diplomatic history, Franklin’s new book From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African- Americans crystallized for me in a very personal way my recognition of this new leader in the crusade for our recognition and inclusion in academe. Later, I watched with pride as John Hope Franklin was appointed chairman of the Department of History at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College in 1956. His pioneering appointment resonated throughout higher education. At the time, I was at the University of Chicago completing my doctorate in economics. When Franklin became the chair of the University of Chicago history department, I had the privilege of finally meeting him during a return visit to the campus. Thus began our academic friendship for the next four decades.
This is why, in 2005, I was especially honored to receive the John Hope Franklin Award.
— Dr. Clifton R. Wharton is president emeritus of Michigan State University, former chancellor of the State University of New York and former chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com