Thursday, March 26, 2009

RIP: John Hope Franklin

(Finally posted)
John Hope FranklinI was particularly saddened to learn yesterday of historian John Hope Franklin's death at 94. He was by every measure the most significant living African-American historian, and one of the most important historians of African America that we've ever had. His magnum opus, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, first published in 1947 and now in its 7th edition, still offers one of the richest and most complete overviews, in narrative form but buttressed by considerable research, of the history of black people in the north-American British colonies and the United States. (My battered, black and fox-eared copy saw considerable use when I was writing my first book, and I even cite it at the work's end.) It's a book I've recommended to many people alongside Lerone Bennett's more popular volume, Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America (Penguin, 1994), and one that high school students across the US should have to delve into.

Franklin, who was born only 15 years after the end of slavery, also explored specific dimensions of American and African-American history, such as Emancipation and Reconstruction, the South before and during the Civil War, free blacks in the antebellum and post-bellum South, and, most recently, escaped slaves, with significant publications, ranging from papers to books, in each area. In 2005, he published his autobiography, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin, and his most recent book, written and edited with his son John Whittington White, was My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, which explored the life of his own father. During the late 1990s, he took an even more public role when he thanklessly led President Bill Clinton's "National Conversation On Race," drawing more criticism that honest dialogue on how race and racism had functioned and does function in this society.

After taking degrees at Fisk University and Harvard University, Oklahoma native Franklin taught at three historically black colleges and universities, St. Augustine's College (NC), North Carolina Central University, Howard University, and then Brooklyn College, the University of Chicago, and Duke University, where he was the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History, and for seven years was Professor of Legal History in the Law School at Duke University. The historical profession, black academics, and Americans of all colors can mourn the passing of one of the leading intellectual beacons of the last half-century. His books, thankfully, are still with us.