April 3, 2009

John Hope Franklin, renowned historian and professor, dead at 94

John Hope Franklin, a leading African American historian and history professor emeritus at the University, died March 25 of congestive heart failure at Duke Hospital in Durham, NC, at the age of 94.

Franklin, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 by President Bill Clinton, helped Thurgood Marshall’s legal team on Brown v. the Board of Education and worked with civil right leaders such as the Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois. He taught at the University from 1964 to 1982.

Professor emeritus Neil Harris met Franklin when Franklin was the chairman of the Department of History in 1968. Harris described Franklin as “warm, exuberant, and generous.”

“Professor Franklin was a crucial figure on campus; he was both passionate and judicious at the same time. Many people sought his advice. And he was willing to listen,” Harris said.

Franklin was born in the all-black town of Rentiesville, OK, on January 2, 1915, after his father was not allowed to practice law in Louisiana. Franklin later received his B.A. from Fisk University and his Ph. D. from Harvard. He began work teaching at Fisk in 1936, and later taught at North Carolina College for Negroes and Howard University, both historically black colleges.

In 1956, Franklin became the first black department chairman at a mainly white university when he was appointed chairman of the history department at Brooklyn College. He later became the first black president of the American Historical Association. He joined the University of Chicago in 1964 and was chairman of the history department from 1967 to 1970. In 1982, he retired from the University and joined Duke’s history department and later their law school as a professor of legal history.

Franklin’s many books include The Emancipation Proclamation, George Washington Williams: A Biography, and The Free Negro in North Carolina. One of his best-known works, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, chronicles blacks’ contributions to America, from fighting at Lexington and Concord during the Revolutionary War to reaching the Pacific with Lewis and Clark.

Thomas Holt, a history professor at the University, described Franklin’s work as addressing the intersection of academia and politics.

“[Franklin was] saying that intellectual work was—in the best sense—also political work; at its best, it could be responsive to the world we inhabited without being biased, distorted, or self-serving. There was no necessary contradiction between taking that standpoint and doing one’s work with objectivity and integrity,” Holt said.

Franklin achieved many honors throughout his long academic career. He was appointed to chair President Clinton’s Initiative on Race in 1997 to encourage discussion on America’s race issues and was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Spingarn Award.

“Everyone wanted to talk to him,” Harris said. “Yet he would cook breakfast for friends and colleagues and still found the time to relax a bit with favorite hobbies, like the orchids. This is a great loss to all of us.”