John Hope Franklin, 1915 – 2009

One of America’s greatest historians, John Hope Franklin has died at the age of 94. Born on January 2, 1915 in Rentiesville, Oklahoma, a place so small it seems to have been overlooked on the 1920 census, he was the son of Buck Colbert Franklin and Molly Parker Franklin. His father was one of the first black lawyers in Oklahoma, and his mother was a schoolteacher. His grandfather had been a slave held by Indians.

Franklin went to Fisk University after he had been denied entrance to the University of Oklahoma because of his race. He graduated from Fisk in 1935 and then went on to a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1941. In this video he tells what he did in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Franklin taught at Fisk University, St. Augustine’s College, and North Carolina College. He also taught at Howard University, chaired the history department at Brooklyn College and later served at the University of Chicago. In 1983, he was named the James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke University and con- currently was professor of legal history at the Duke University school of Law until 1992. Among others position as Franklin served as president of the American Historical Society the American Studies Association, the Southern Historical Association, and the Organization of American Historians. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1953 when Fisk University became the first historically black college to have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

Although well-known in academic circles, this great American historian was not as well-known to the general public. He came to the attention of the general public on two particular occasions. In 1962, he became the first black member of the exclusive Cosmos Club in Washington, DC. The Cosmos Club, once described by the New York Times as “a preserve for eggheads,” had a racially exclusionary policy. In 1961, Carl T. Rowan, then serving in the Kennedy administration as assistant secretary of state for public affairs, was denied entry into the Cosmos Club because he was black. A number of high-ranking officials and former officials of both the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations resigned as a result. The Cosmos Club then endured months of negative publicity as a result of this decision. The Club then elected Franklin as a member.

Franklin also came to the public attention in 1997 when he chaired President Clinton’s advisory committee on race. Franklin, though an outstanding scholar, was unabashedly an activist, to use his own word. He felt he had an obligation to make the world a better place.

His 1947 book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, remains authoritative and has been updated numerous times.

I had the honor to meet Dr. Franklin in 2004 when I worked on the plans for the African-American History Museum in Washington, D.C. To learn more about this great historian see the memorial page at the Duke University web site.


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