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History Doyen: John Hope Franklin, 1915-2009

What They’re Famous For

John Hope Franklin died at March 25, 2009 at the age of 94, Franklin was the doyen of African American history. However, as Franklin claimed “the history of Black people in America is American history.” And that it “not separated so that it isn’t accorded the respect that it deserves from other scholars.”

Franklin lived through America’s most defining twentieth-century transformation, the dismantling of legally-protected racial segregation. A renowned scholar, he explored that transformation in its myriad aspects, notably in his 3.5 million-copy bestseller, From Slavery to Freedom. And he was an active participant.

Born in 1915, he, like every other African American, could not but participate: he was evicted from whites-only train cars, confined to segregated schools, threatened-once with lynching-and consistently met with racism’s denigration of his humanity. And yet he managed to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, become the first black historian to assume a full-professorship at a white institution, Brooklyn College, be appointed chair of the University of Chicago’s history department and, later, John B. Duke Professor at Duke University. He has reshaped the way African American history is understood and taught and become one of the world’s most celebrated historians, garnering over 130 honorary degrees. But Franklin’s participation was much more fundamental than that.

From his effort in 1934 to hand President Franklin Roosevelt a petition calling for action in response to the Cordie Cheek lynching, to his 1997 appointment by President Clinton to head the President’s Initiative on Race, and continuing to the present, Franklin has influenced with determination and dignity the nation’s racial conscience. Whether aiding Thurgood Marshall’s preparation for arguing Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, marching to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, or testifying against Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987, Franklin has pushed the national conversation on race towards humanity and equality, a life-long effort that earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1995.
“I think this will be in a class by itself.” Obama’s campaign “is the most radical, far-reaching, significant [undertaking] by any individual or group in our history,” he said. “This strikes at the very heart of national ideology on race and the political patterns of this country’s history.”

Adapted from John Hope Franklin’s author biography from his memoir “Mirror to America” Published in November 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Excerpt from Mirror to America

No Crystal Stair

Living in a world restricted by laws defining race, as well as creating obstacles, disadvantages, and even superstitions regarding race, challenged my capacities for survival. For ninety years I have witnessed countless men and women likewise meet this challenge. Some bested it; some did not; many had to settle for any accommodation they could. I became a student and eventually a scholar. And it was armed with the tools of scholarship that I strove to dismantle those laws, level those obstacles and disadvantages, and replace superstitions with humane dignity. Along with much else, the habits of scholarship granted me something many of my similarly striving contemporaries did not have. I knew, or should say know, what we are up against.

Slavery was a principal centerpiece of the New World Order that set standards of conduct including complicated patterns of relationships. These lasted not merely until emancipations but after Reconstruction and on into the twentieth century. Many of them were still very much in place when beginning in the late 1950s, the sit-ins, marches, and the black revolution began a successful onslaught on some of the antediluvian practices that had become a part of the very fabric of society in the New World and American society in particular.

Born in 1915, I grew up in a racial climate that was stifling to my senses and damaging to my emotional health and social well-being. Society at that time presented a challenge to the strongest adult, and to a child it was not merely difficult but cruel. I watched my mother and father, who surely numbered among the former, daily meet that challenge; I and my three siblings felt equally that cruelty. And it was no more possible to escape that environment of racist barbarism than one today can escape the industrial gases that pollute the atmosphere.

This climate touched me at every stage of my life. I was forcibly removed from a train at the age of six for having accidentally taken a seat in the “white people’s coach.” I was the unhappy victim, also at age six, of a race riot that kept the family divided for more than four years. I endured the very strict segregation laws and practices in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was rejected as a guide through busy downtown Tulsa traffic by a blind white woman when she discovered that the twelve-year-old at her side was black. I underwent the harrowing experience as a sixteen-year-old college freshman of being denounced in the most insulting terms for having the temerity to suggest to a white ticket seller a convenient way to make change. More harrowing yet was the crowd of rural white men who confronted and then nominated me as a possible Mississippi lynching victim when I was nineteen. I was refused service while on a date as a Harvard University graduate student at age twenty-one. Racism in the navy turned my effort to volunteer during World War II into a demeaning embarrassment, such that at a time when the United States was ostensibly fighting for the Four Freedoms I struggled to evade the draft. I was called a “Harvard nigger” at age forty. At age forty-five, because of race, New York banks denied me a loan to purchase a home. At age sixty I was ordered to serve as a porter for a white person in a New York hotel, at age eighty to hang up a white guest’s coat at a Washington club where I was not an employee but a member.

To these everyday, ordinary experiences during ninety years in the American race jungle should be added the problem of trying to live in a community where the economic and social odds clearly placed any descendant of Africans at a disadvantage. For a profession, my father, Buck Franklin, proudly chose the practice of law. Depending as it did on the judicial system in which it operated, the practice of law in America could not possibly have functioned favorably or even fairly for a person who qualified as, at best, a pariah within it. My father, ever the optimist, persisted in holding the view that the practice of law was a noble pursuit whose nobility entailed the privilege of working to rectify a system that contained a set of advantages for white people and a corresponding set of disadvantages for black people. The integrity and the high moral standards by which he lived and that he commended to his children forbade him to violate the law or resort to any form of unethical conduct. And, as children, we had to adjust ourselves to dignified, abject poverty.

My mother, Mollie, shared these views, to which she added a remarkable amount of creativity and resourcefulness in her effort to supplement the family income and boost the family morale. She taught in public schools, made hats, and developed a line of beauty aids. To these creative skills should be added her equanimity, her sense of fairness, her high standards of performance, and her will to succeed. On many occasions she would say to me, “If you do your best, the angels cannot do any better!” These qualities became the hallmark of her relationship with her four children, giving us the strength and skills to cope with the formidable odds she knew we would encounter. If we did not always succeed, it was not the fault of our parents.

But the challenges I, my brother, Buck, and my sisters, Mozella and Anne, faced were always formidable. Living through years of remarkable change, the barrier of race was a constant. With the appearance of each new institution or industry, racism would rear its ugly head again. When the age of the automobile made its debut, there was the question of whether African Americans should be given the opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to find work within that industry. It was the same with the advent of the computer age. More than one company dragged its feet when it came to making certain that young people on “both sides of the track” had an opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to be successful participants in the new scientific revolution. Indeed, the expansion of numerous American industries caused debates or at least discussions regarding the abilities of African Americans to cope with new developments, whatever they were. Even at the end of the twentieth century, many Americans continued to debate nineteenth-century racial theories regarding the abilities of blacks to see at night, to make accurate calculations, and to learn foreign languages. These debates ranged from discussions having to do with the effect of African Americans on the growth of the gross national product to their ability to resist new diseases or their capacity to adjust to new educational or cultural developments. Throughout a life spent at the intersection of scholarship and public service, I have been painfully aware that superstitions and quaint notions of biological and even moral differences between blacks and whites continue to affect race relations in the United States—even into the twenty-first century.

In 1943 Gunnar Myrdal called attention to these discussions and debates over racial differences in his classic American Dilemma. And when the Committee on the Status of Black Americans, of which I was a member, took another look in 1989 while updating Myrdal’s book, we saw much the same thing and set forth these and other views in A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society. In our discussion of the problem of race, we declared that it could well create new fissures that might, in turn, lead to an increased level of confrontations and violence. The Rodney King riots of 1991 offered vivid testimony that there still persists much too much potential for racial conflict for anyone to be complacent.

Of the many recollections I have arising from my fifteen months as chair of President Clinton’s advisory board on race is that of the black woman who screamed during a meeting her history of how she had been abused and mistreated because of her race. My memory of the white man who claimed that already too much was being done for African Americans, and it was he who needed protection from policies such as affirmative action, is no less vivid. The advisory board was troubled by these and similar competing claims, and it became clear that open dialogues and, if necessary, limitless discussions were the civilized approach to finding constructive ways of dealing with America’s racial ills. It did and will require not only persistent diligence but also abiding patience.

During my life it has been necessary to work not only as hard as my energies would permit, but to do it as regularly and as consistently as humanly possible. This involved the strictest discipline in the maximum use of my time and energy. I worked two jobs in college and graduate school that made inordinate demands on my time, but there was no alternative to the regimen that circumstances demanded. And those circumstances included a refusal to check my catholic interests that have always prompted me to participate in activities beyond scholarship. Balancing professional and personal activities has resulted in a life full of rich rewards, a consequence deeply indebted to my near sixty-year marriage to Aurelia Whittington. My father called her the Trooper for her patient, good-willed, indomitable spirit. She was that and so much more. How do I calculate the influence of having spent two-thirds of my life living alongside an exemplar of selfless dignity?

Even before we were married, I learned much from Aurelia. She taught me to put others ahead of my own preference, as she did routinely. There is no more vivid example of her habit of self-sacrifice than when she abandoned her own career. She did so in order to be there for Whit, our only child, when our adult Brooklyn neighbors taunted him and sought in every way possible to convey that neither he nor his family was welcome to live in their previously all-white neighborhood.

My life has been dedicated to and publicly defined by scholarship, a lifelong affection for the profession of history and the myriad institutions that support it. A white professor at historically black Fisk University powerfully influenced my choice of a career, one I decided early on to dedicate to new areas of study, wherever possible, in order to maintain a lively, fresh approach to teaching and writing history. This is how I happened to get into African American history, in which I never had a formal course but that attracted an increasing number of students of my generation and many more in later generations. But I was determined that I would not be confined to a box of any kind, so I regarded African American history as not so much a separate field as a subspecialty of American history. Even in graduate school I was interested in women’s history, and in more recent years I have studied and written papers in that field, although I never claimed more than the desire to examine it intensely rather than presume to master it entirely.

I could not work in the field of history without maintaining some contact with other historians and some affiliation with historical associations. Consequently, at the Library of Congress and in local libraries where I was engaged in research, I made a point of meeting other historians and discussing with them matters of mutual interest. I not only maintained an active membership in the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History but joined other groups, even where it became necessary to educate members, to the extent possible, that history knows no bounds, either in the human experience or in the rules governing who is eligible to record it. This would not, could not involve demeaning myself or in any way compromising my own self-respect. On occasion it did involve venturing into groups and organizations when it was not clear if their reception of me would be cool or cordial. Nevertheless, as a consequence I became active in the major national professional organizations long before most other African Americans joined them.

In much the same way, I became involved with historical groups in other parts of the world. My ever-widening contacts in the United States presented me with opportunities to become associated with historians in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America. Each contact was instructive not only about the many things that peoples of the world have in common but also as to the intense interest other peoples have in problems and developments far removed from their own that would nevertheless assist them in understanding their own society. A remarkable and unforeseen result of my determination to pursue my profession wherever it led, be that into the halls of previously all-white academic associations or to the far-flung scholarly organizations scattered across the globe, were the contacts that released me from the straitjacket confinement of pursuing a career exclusively in historically black colleges and universities.

My life and my career have been fulfilled not merely by my own efforts but also by the thoughtful generosity of family, friends, and professional colleagues. I can only hope that they realize, as do I, how interdependent we all are and how much more rewarding and fulfilling life is whenever we reach a level of understanding where we can fully appreciate the extent of our interrelationships with and our reliance on those who came before us, kept us company during our lives, and will come after us.

Excerpted from Mirror to America by John Hope Franklin. Copyright © 2005 by John Hope Franklin. Publishes in November 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


By John Hope Franklin

  • “This is one of the most historic moments-if not the most historic moment-in the history of the country.” — Franklin commented after Barack Obama was elected the United States’ first black president in a video.
  • “My challenge was to weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly. That was terribly important.” — John Hope Franklin in 1997 at the 50th Anniversary of his definitive account of the black experience in America, “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans.” 
  • A FULL CENTURY has elapsed since Abraham Lincoln signed the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. A large number of people were participants in the drama that culminated in the signing: members of the Cabinet, members of Congress, Negroes, religious and civic leaders, military leaders and common soldiers, clerks and telegraph operators. Many of them have left accounts of their experiences and observations, but few if any were in a position to tell the full story. Thus, we have from the participants who left some record of their role mere fragments. And none of them was able to see the Emancipation Proclamation in its broader context and significance. Without the vantage point provided by time, they could hardly be expected to have the objectivity and perspective that the span of one hundred years provides. But without their accounts the historian would be in no position to tell the story.
    While historians have dealt with the Proclamation as a phase or an aspect of the Civil War, they have given scant attention to the evolution of the document in the mind of Lincoln, the circumstances and conditions thatled to its writing, its impact on the course of the war at home and abroad, and its significance for later generations. A few have devoted considerable attention to the Proclamation. In his The Great Proclamation Henry Steele Commager has written a delightful, brief account for children. Benjamin Quarles covers the matter in his Lincoln and the Negro but his interest properly extends far beyond the Proclamation. Charles Eberstadt has written a valuable article, “The Emancipation Proclamation,” that deals largely with the texts of thenumerous manuscripts and printed drafts of the document.
    The ramifications as well as the implications of the Emancipation Proclamation seem endless, and many of them have doubtless escaped me. But I have sought to deal here with the principal outlines of the history of the document and to indicate its general significance to contemporary as well as to later generations. As a war measure its significance is, perhaps, fairly well known. As a moral force during and after the war, its importance is, to some students of the period, elusive. As a great American document of freedom it has been greatly neglected. In these and other ways I have sought to place it in its setting and give it its proper evaluation.
    — John Hope Franklin in “Reconstruction after the Civil War”
  • Despite the large number of books and articles touching on the subject, there is still no full-length study of runaway slaves. In fact, much of the scholarship about slave resistance continues to be dominated by the conceptual framework and the focus presented by Herbert Aptheker more than a half-century ago: “The Machinery of Control,” “Early Plots and Rebellions,” “The Turner Cataclysm and Some Repercussions,” and “The Civil War Years.” Perhaps no book has “exercised such dominion over a subject of prime importance,” Genovese writes, as American Negro Slave Revolts. Peter Kolchin recently observed, however, that Aptheker probably exaggerated the extent of slave unrest. He lamented that there is still no adequate study of slave resistance or slave flight.
    We have undertaken an extensive examination of “slave flight” between 1790 and 1860. It reveals, among other things, some problems of management of the South’s “peculiar institution.” It shows how a significant number of slaves challenged the system and how the great majority of them struggled to attain their freedom even if they failed.
    The price they paid for their unwillingness to submit was obviously enormous. This study reveals how slave owners marshaled considerable effort to prevent the practice of running away, meted out punishments to slaves who disregarded the rules, and established laws and patrols to control the movement of slaves. It also exposes the violence and cruelty that were inherent in the slave system. Indeed, it shows, perhaps better than any other approach, how slaves resisted with various forms of violence and how slave owners responded, at times brutally, to demonstrate their authority over their human chattel.
    Even today important aspects of the history of slavery remain shrouded in myth and legend. Many people still believe that slaves were generally content, that racial violence on the plantation was an aberration, and that the few who ran away struck out for the Promised Land in the North or Canada. We have carefully scrutinized those who challenged the system; when, where, and how they ran away; how long they remained out; how they survived away from the plantation; and how and when they were brought back and punished. We examine the motives of absentees, or those who left the farm or plantation for a few days or weeks; the incentives of outlyers, or those who hid out in the woods for months, sometimes years; and the activities of maroons, who established camps in remote swamps and bayous. We also examine how “term slaves,” or those to be emancipated at a future date, responded to their status and how free blacks assisted their brethren and on occasion themselves became runaways.
    Of equal importance, we seek to analyze the motives and responses of the slaveholding class and other whites. How did owners react to such intransigence in their midst? How did they attempt to halt the flow of runaways? What laws did they seek to enact? What punishments did they administer? How successfully did they curtail such dissidence? Indeed, it is less important to discover what happened to individual slaves than to understand the relationship between the owners and the runaways who challenged the system, a relationship that reveals perhaps as well as any perspective the true nature of the South’s peculiar institution.
    — John Hope Franklin in “Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation”

John Hope Franklin in Memoriam

  • “Because of the life John Hope Franklin lived, the public service he rendered, and the scholarship that was the mark of his distinguished career, we all have a richer understanding of who we are as Americans and our journey as a people. Dr. Franklin will be deeply missed. Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to his loved ones, as our nation mourns his loss.” — President Barack Obama
  • “John Hope Franklin was one of the most important American historians of the 20th century and one of the people I most admired. I was honored he agreed to be the head of the President’s Initiative on Race. He led his committee all over America to listen to people of all races, faiths, cultures, and classes. And he produced a remarkable report on the ways in which we remain divided along color lines and what we can do about it. During the process, we became friends and I learned a lot from him about history, politics, and life. He graced our country with his life, his scholarship, and his citizenship. Hillary and I will miss him very much. Our hearts and prayers go out to his family and friends.” — Former President Bill Clinton
  • Today we mourn the passing of one of our nation’s most distinguished scholars, historian John Hope Franklin. His academic and civic contributions helped integrate the African-American narrative into American history – reflecting one of our nation’s most cherished goals of creating a stronger and more united America. The author of the landmark study of African Americans, From Slavery to Freedom, Professor Franklin chaired the history departments at Brooklyn College and the University of Chicago, before becoming James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke University. The John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies and the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke remain as permanent monuments to his contributions in academia and public policy. John Hope Franklin successfully bridged the gap between theory and practice. That was never more evident than his scholarly work on President Bill Clinton’s Task Force on Race – for which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, his invaluable work on the history of African Americans, and his seminal research used in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education. Let us honor the lasting legacy of John Hope Franklin by maintaining the vibrancy of our nation through our commitment to progress and equality for all.” — Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement on the passing of renowned historian John Hope Franklin. 
  • “The preeminent voice and witness for America’s sojourn from slavery to freedom has been silenced physically. But his writings, research, interpretation and legacy will live forever. I talked with him as a student and walked the University of Chicago campus with him. He was who I went to first for advice and counsel. All of his students felt that we were his prize possession. He mad us feel that way. In the family of American historians he sits in a high seat and occupies a high place.” — Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition
  • “His work helped make possible an expansion of freedom and justice that has continued from Brown v. Board … to last fall’s election. We are all diminished by his loss.” — Drew Gilpin Faust
  • “He was working in a profession that more or less banned him at the outset and ended up its leading practitioner. And yet, he always managed to keep his grace and his sense of humor.” — Tim Tyson, a history professor at Duke
  • “I think about a phrase my father uses a gentleman and a scholar. He was both of those things. His honesty and his integrity and his restraint were coupled with a passionate devotion to his craft and to his country. He had a fierce sense of commitment to public scholarship, the kind of scholarship that matters.” — Tim Tyson, Duke University history professor and author
  • “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
  • “John Hope Franklin personified the dignity, empowerment and faith of a generation of African-Americans who persisted, and succeeded, in making their country live up to its promise as a land of equal opportunity. He never permitted anyone to take away his dignity or sense of self. … He was a wonderful mentor, a dear friend and a colleague who loved to celebrate the achievements of his fellow scholars. He will be sorely missed.” — William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History, Duke University
  • “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
  • “By always telling the truth to America and the world about history, he steered our conscience in such a way that constantly made it uncomfortable to accept the status quo. He reminded us that we must do more than merely apologize for the pain of the past, but we also must make amends.” — William Barber, state chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
  • “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.” — North Carolina House Speaker Joe Hackney
  • “I worked with John Hope Franklin and was inspired by him. His values were infectious. Through his example and his writings, he helped me to see more clearly the struggles of African-Americans and the continuing obligation we all have to bring about true equal opportunity for all Americans. He was a great, great man.” — Erskine Bowles, University of North Carolina system President
  • “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
  • “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
  • “John Hope Franklin was an iconic historian who achieved the pinnacle of success in his professional life and whose work will live on for many years to come. His distinguished career as a public servant and scholar are an inspiration to so many. Dr. Franklin shattered barriers that seem unimaginable in todays world, and he did so with elegance and perseverance. North Carolina was fortunate to count this fine individual among its residents. Our nation lost one of the most brilliant minds of a generation in Dr. Franklin, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family at this difficult time.” — Senator Kay R. Hagan (D-NC) and Representative David Price (NC-4) today announcing similar resolutions in their respective chambers honoring North Carolina historian John Hope Franklin
  • “Dr. Franklins scholarship, from St. Augustines and North Carolina College in the 1930s and 40s to his distinguished careers at Chicago and Duke, showed that African-American history is inseparable from any telling of the American story. We honor his tremendous contributions to American history, but his legacy is not only the study of the past. The greater understanding he fostered lights a path for present and future citizens to live together in a more unified nation. Lisa and I join North Carolina and the nation in grieving his loss. From his beloved orchids to his wise counsel, he shared his friendship generously and will be greatly missed.” — Representative David Price (NC-4)
  • “As a premiere historian, John Hope Franklin made immeasurable contributions by educating us on the integral role that Africans and African-Americans played in American history. As an activist, John Hope Franklin was an active mentor and educator of the leaders of the civil rights movement as well as an unapologetic advocate for full and equal citizenship. As a friend, he was a mentor and truly wonderful spirit and inspiration to me and my wife. I am deeply saddened by the loss of such a monumental figure. But I am also consoled by the fact that he lived and used every minute of his life for the most outstanding, decent and noble purposes.” — Rep. Mel Watt (NC-12)
  • “John Hope Franklin was a great educator, historian and humanitarian. He dedicated his entire life to trying to bring people together to make the world a better place.” Rep. Bob Etheridge (NC-2).
  • “John Hope Franklin changed the way we look at our history. American history is not just the story of European settlers and their descendents. Franklin made sure that the story of American history included the contributions and experiences of all Americans.” — Representative Brad Miller (NC-13)
  • “John Hope Franklins lifetime of work was crucial to America coming to the understanding that history would be incomplete without African Americans, and that America could only become whole by confronting the lingering ghosts of slavery and segregation.” — Rep. G.K. Butterfield (NC-1) 
  • “I am saddened by the death of Dr. John Hope Franklin, yet I know future generations will celebrate the accomplishments of his life. He was an American treasure.” — Rep. Larry Kissell (NC-8)

About John Hope Franklin’s Scholarship

  • “A pioneer scholar; a splendid humanist and a shining model to generations of students, scholars, and activists.” — David Levering Lewis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, 1994
  • “There had really been nothing like the book that John Hope Franklin wrote in 1942, “From Slavery to Freedom.” Before that book appeared, there had been efforts to sum up the experience, the odyssey, of people of color in North America. Du Bois of course, W.E.B. Du Bois had made an impressive effort as had several others. But Franklin’s synoptic history, beginning in 1619, and as it was amended as the years passed – I think perhaps, we’re in the eight or ninth edition up to the day before yesterday – gave the full experience in its many dimensions – but handily so. Accessibly written, deeply sourced – indeed the documents at the end of “From Slavery to Freedom” gave graduate students perhaps all they needed to launch their own researches. It was a book that made black studies, as it was called in its initial period, or African American history – now called diasporic studies – gave it its launch pad. And so he really was seminal from that perspective of enabling a sub- field, an ignored field, to become indeed one of the primary pursuits of (unintelligible) research. — Professor DAVID LEVERING LEWIS (New York University; Pulitzer Prize winner)
  • I absolutely remember it because it was the second thickest book on my parents’ den shelves. The other one was the Bible. But I remember growing up and seeing that book there and eventually leafing through it myself, and the first edition, hard-bound is a think book, and I just remember being impressed that, as my father told me, who was a fan of historians, that one man wrote that book, one negro man, which was the day, the word of the time. And I have to believe that my just astounding understanding of what it meant for him to regard John Hope Franklin with that honored place on the family den bookshelf meant a great deal to me and my own scholarly endeavors. So I discovered the book before I discovered the man, and when I came to Duke University, my parents would always say that she’s at John Hope Franklin’s university, and that was enough for me to have earned some honor in the eye of my parents. — Professor KARLA HOLLOWAY (Co-founder; John Hope Franklin Center)on NPR
  • Well, I visited John Hope Franklin at Brooklyn College the year he became the chair of the history department there, and this was such a notable event in race relations and in scholarship that I think it was announced on the front page of the New York Times. I knew of him because we shared a professor, a history professor, at Fisk University, one who had influenced my life and the course which it followed, and I knew that John Hope Franklin had become a historian in large part because of the influence of this remarkable history professor. And so to meet him, the flesh-and-blood man, I entered into his office as though into something of a sanctuary. Well, he soon dispelled that kind of reverential atmosphere that was in my mind, and as Karla says, he was a wonderful combination of gravitas and levity. Those two words really are antonyms, and yet they do express his personality, which was one that always addressed major issues in a kind of demotic way. One understood why they were important. You not only understood the issue, but you understood why the issue had to matter. John was perhaps a precursor of this much bandied-about term, public intellectual. Before that tripped off everybody’s tongue to describe lots of people, he had already ventured from the narrow…ivory tower, and into marching from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King. And before that, of course, leading a group of historians to ascertain what was in the minds of the congressional authors of the constitutional amendments, 14th and 15th, in order to strengthen the argument of the NAACP before the Supreme Court. And of course with the conversation on race enterprise that President Clinton… I think that you have to remember each and every one of them because he was a complicated and a – a citizen of the world. He made sure that his intelligence and interest reached far beyond the local to the global, and yet he was loved. That’s what I’ll remember about him. — Professor DAVID LEVERING LEWIS (New York University; Pulitzer Prize winner)
  • When one reads From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, by JohnHope Franklin, the immediate impression, and for me, appreciation, is that here is a scholar with honesty and purpose who is, in effect standing in loco parentis of the crucial facts about the African Americans’ past, present and future effect on the American system. As in his other writings, whether it is The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860Race and History; Selected Essays — 1938-1988Racial Equality in AmericaReconstruction After the Civil WarAfrican Americans and The Living Constitution; his biography of George Washington Williams; or other selections from his fertile mind and productive pen, the comprehensive investigation of the African in America, from the gray and pale days of slavery to the still-cloudy days of near-freedom is presented with such vitality and scholarly authority that those who dare play fast and loose with the facts are compelled to take notice; and more often than not, to return to their so urces for further discussion and interpretation. — Professor Percy R. Luney, Jr. North Carolina Central University School of Law September 19, 1997
  • “Those African-Americans who teach in typically underfinanced black colleges today confront the same heavy teaching loads that Franklin bore, all the while insisting on continuing his research and scholarship.” — Mary Frances Berry reflected on Mr. Franklin’s career
  • “My fondest dream would be to create a work of scholarship in the field of African American literature as germinal, as salient, as compelling, and as timeless as From Slavery to Freedom.” — Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University about “From Slavery to Freedom”
  • “John Hope Franklin is a true role model. He embodies the native optimism, i.e., that one can go from slavery to freedom, from ignorance to intelligence, can experience cruelty, yet manifest kindness. In Mirror to America, each citizen can see herself and himself, reflected in the life of this great American.” — Maya Angelou
  • “Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin is an astonishing beautiful, deeply intelligent record of an extraordinary life. Required reading lest we forget what is possible in a race-based society.” — Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature
  • “With his remarkable sense of humanity, renowned historian John Hope Franklin shares his life journey – an odyssey marked by scholarship, public service, and his passionate commitment to improve the condition of African Americans and their relations with their fellow citizens. Through candid stories of Franklin’s relentless pursuit of equality, Mirror to America calls upon all Americans to look at our nation’s past so that we may destroy the color line that continues to divide our country, and progress together into the future.” — President William Jefferson Clinton
  • “This is the most important autobiography of the year! John Hope Franklin is a national treasure. Mirror to America is cause for a national celebration. For me, and countless others, Dr. Franklin is a mentor and role-model without peer, a man whose clear-eyed look into our past improved America’s future. Mirror to America will lift the spirit and steel our resolve for the work ahead.” — Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., Senior Manager and Director Lazard LTD and author of Vernon Can Read
  • “John Hope Franklin’s story is a triumphant one, at once a chronicle of America’s progress in civil rights over the past ninety years and a stirring reminder of the determination still needed to confront the country’s remaining barriers to racial equality. He has inspired his students for decades; now, with Mirror to America, he offers inspiration to us all.” — David N. Dinkins, 106th Mayor, City of New York
  • “John Hope Franklin’s Mirror to America is a singular document, a great historian’s autobiography that will serve as an indispensable history of our times. Read and reflect, indeed!” — David Levering Lewis, Pulizer Prize winner, Julius Silver University Professor and Professor of History, NYU
  • “In Search of the Promised Land is a unique and exciting addition to the literature on slavery and nineteenth-century history. It shows the complexity of slave life and challenges existing historical interpretations without completely overturning the studies of the last thirty years. . . . I love the story itself–what a story!” — James Fuller, University of Indianapolis
  • “The book’s focus on the Thomas-Rapier family provides for one of the more vivid presentations of antebellum race relations I have seen. So much of scholarship on slave life tends to lose sight of individuals who had to confront life in a slave society. This book brings individuals back into the picture.” — Dickson D. Bruce, University of Irvine California
  • “No one has yet explored the fugitives’ world and its meaning for the slave experience more deeply and with greater sophistication than [the authors]….[This book] greatly enhances our understanding of the system of slavery….” — Los Angeles Times Book Review
  • “Using documentation from broadsheets to diaries, the authors provide incredible details of who the runaways were, their motivations and destinations, and how their efforts failed or succeeded. Franklin and Schweninger provide very personal accounts, giving names and personalities to an aspect of U.S. slavery that is seldom portrayed and refuting the mythology of the contented slave.” — Booklist

Basic Facts

John Hope Franklin JPGTeaching & Professional Positions:

Fisk University, Nashville, TN, instructor, 1936-37;
St. Augustine’s College, Raleigh, NC, instructor, 1938-43;
North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University), Durham, NC, instructor in history, 1943-47;
Howard University, Washington, DC, professor of history, 1947-56;
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Brooklyn, NY, professor of history and chair of department, 1956-64;
Fulbright professor, Australia, 1960;
University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, professor of history, 1964-82, chair of history department, 1967-70;
John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor, 1969-82, professor emeritus, 1982–Duke University, Durham, NC, James B. Duke Professor of History, 1982-85, professor emeritus, 1985–.

Also, Fulbright distinguished lecturer, Zimbabwe, 1986;
Visiting professor at University of California, Harvard University, University of Wisconsin, Cornell University, University of Hawaii, Australia National University, Salzburg (Austria) Seminar, and other institutions;
Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions, Cambridge University, 1962-63.
Board of Foreign Scholarships, member, 1962-69, chair, 1966-69;
National Council on Humanities, member, 1976-79.

Member of board of trustees, Fisk University, 1947-84, Chicago Symphony, 1976-80, National Humanities Center, 1980-91, and De Sable Museum, Chicago University, 1970–;
Member of board of directors, Salzburg Seminar, Museum of Science and Industry, 1968-80.

Advisory board chair, President William Jefferson Clinton’s Special Presidential Commission for One America: The President’s Initiative on Race.
Member of the board of the United States National Slavery Museum, Fredericksburg, VA.

Area of Research:

African American history, Southern history, Race Relations in America


Fisk University, A.B., 1935;
Harvard University, A.M., 1936, Ph.D., 1941.

Major Publications:

  • The Free Negro in North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1943, reprinted with a new foreword and bibliographic afterword by the author, 1995.
  • (With Alfred A. Moss, Jr.) From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1947, reprinted as From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 8th edition, 2000.
  • The Militant South, 1800-1860, Belknap Press (Cambridge, MA), 1956, revised edition, 1970, reprinted, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2002.
  • Reconstruction after the Civil War, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1962, 2nd edition, 1995.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1963, reprinted, Harlan Davidson (Wheeling, IL), 1995.
  • (With John W. Caughey and Ernest R. May) Land of the Free: A History of the United States, Benziger (Mission Hills, CA), 1965, teacher’s edition, 1971.
  • (With the editors of Time-Life Books) An Illustrated History of Black Americans, Time-Life (New York, NY), 1970.
  • Racial Equality in America, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1976.
  • A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North,Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1976.
  • George Washington Williams: A Biography, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1985, reprinted with a new preface, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1998.
  • Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1990.
  • The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-first Century, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1993.
  • (With William M. Banks) Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
  • (With Loren Schweninger) Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999.
  • (With Loren Schweninger) In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2005.
  • Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin,Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2005.

Editor / Joint Editor:

  • The Civil War Diary of J.T. Ayers, Illinois State Historical Society (Springfield, IL), 1947, reprinted, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1999.
  • Albion Tourgee, A Fool’s Errand, Belknap Press (Cambridge, MA), 1961.
  • T.W. Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1962.
  • Three Negro Classics, Avon (New York, NY), 1965.
  • (With Isadore Starr) The Negro in Twentieth-Century America: A Reader on the Struggle for Civil Rights, Vintage (New York, NY), 1967.
  • Color and Race, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1968.
  • W.E.B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade,Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1969.
  • John R. Lynch, Reminiscences of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John R. Lynch, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1970.
  • (With August Meier) Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century,University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1982.
  • (With Genna Rae McNeil) African Americans and the Living Constitution, Smithsonian Institution Press (Washington, DC), 1995.
  • (With John Whittington Franklin) My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1997.

Coeditor of American history series for Crowell and AHM Publishing, 1964;
general editor of “Zenith Book” series on secondary education, Doubleday, 1965;
general editor of “Negro American Biographies and Autobiographies” series, University of Chicago Press, 1969;
coeditor of “American History Series,” Harlan Davidson, 1985.

Contributor to Books: 

Problems in American History, edited by Arthur S. Link and Richard Leopold, 1952, 2nd revised edition, 1966;
The Negro Thirty Years Afterward, edited by Rayford W. Logan, 1955;
Issues in University Education, edited by Charles Frankel, 1959; Lincoln for the Ages, edited by Ralph Newman, 1960;
The Southerner as American, edited by Charles G. Sellars, Jr., 1960;
Soon One Morning, edited by Herbert Hill, 1963;
The Atlantic Future, edited by H.V. Hodson, 1964;
The South in Continuity and Change, edited by John C. McKinney and Edgar T. Thompson, 1965;
New Frontiers of the American Reconstruction, edited by Harold Hyman, 1966;
An American Primer, edited by Daniel J. Boorstin, 1968;
The Comparative Approach to American History, edited by C. Vann Woodward, 1968;
William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer, edited by William Edward Farrison, 1969;
Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist, edited by Marcia M. Mathews, 1969;
Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, edited by Alfreda M. Duster, 1970;
Chant of Saints, edited by Michael S. Harper, 1979;
The Voices of Negro Protest in America, edited by William H. Burns, 1980;
A Melting Pot or a Nation of Minorities, edited by Robert L. Payton, 1986;
This Road to Freedom, edited by Eric C. Lincoln, 1990;
American Studies in Black and White: Selected Essays, 1949-1989,edited by Sidney Kaplan and Allan Austin, 1991;
To Be Free, edited by Herbert Aptheker, 1992.

Author of forewords to history books by others, including Scott Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,1982; Timuel D. Black, Jr., Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Black Migration, 2003; Judge Robert L. Carter, A Matter of Law: A Memoir of Struggle in the Cause of Equal Rights, 2005; and Harold Holzer, Edna Greene Medford, and Frank J. Williams, The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views, 2006.

Also author of pamphlets for U.S. Information Service and Anti- Defamation League of B’nai B’rith; contributor of articles to numerous journals and periodicals, including Daedalus.


Edward Austin fellowships, 1937-39;
presidents’ fellowships, Brown University, 1952-53;
Guggenheim fellowships, 1950-51, 1973- 74;
Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences fellowships, 1973-74;
Jules F. Landry Award, 1975, for A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum
Named to Oklahoma Hall of Fame, 1978;
Clarence L. Holte Literary Award, 1986, for George Washington Williams: A Biography;
Cleanth Brooks Medal, Fellowship of Southern Writers, 1989;
Gold Medal, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1990;
Caldwell Medal, North Carolina Council on Humanities, 1992 and 1993;
Charles Frankel Medal, 1993;
Bruce Catton Prize from the Society of American Historians and Sidney Hook Award from Phi Beta Kappa, both 1994;
NAACP Spingarn Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom, W.E.B. Du Bois Award, Alpha Phi Alpha Award of Merit, and Organization of American Historians Award, all 1995;
American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1997, for Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life; named to Oklahoma Historians Hall of Fame, 1997;
Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, 1997;
John W. Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity, 2006.

Recipient of honorary degrees from more than 135 colleges and universities, including: LL.D. from Morgan State University, 1960, Lincoln University, 1961, Virginia State College, 1961, Hamline University, 1965, Lincoln College, 1965, Fisk University, 1965, Columbia University, 1969, University of Notre Dame, 1970, and Harvard University, 1981;
A.M. from Cambridge University, 1962;
L.H.D. from Long Island University, 1964, University of Massachusetts, 1964, and Yale University, 1977;
and Litt.D. from Princeton University, 1972.
Black Issues in Higher Education established the John Hope Franklin Awards for Excellence in Higher Education; the John Hope Franklin Institute was established at Duke University.

Additional Info:

American Historical Association (member of executive council, 1959-62; president, 1978-79), Organization of American Historians (president, 1974-75), Association for Study of Negro Life and History, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP; member of board of directors, Legal Defense and Education Fund), American Studies Association, American Association of University Professors, American Philosophical Society (Jefferson Medal, 1993), Southern Historical Association (life member; president, 1970-71), Phi Beta Kappa (senate, 1966-82, president, 1973-76), Phi Alpha Theta.