JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN (1915-2009) was an educator and historian, best known for From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, first published in 1947, and continuously updated.
Born January 2, 1915, in Rentiesville, Oklahoma, Franklin was named after John Hope. He was the son of Buck Colbert Franklin, one of the first black lawyers in the Oklahoma Indian territory, and Mollie Parker Franklin, a schoolteacher and community leader.
He excelled academically and graduated as valedictorian of his class from Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa. The state, however, would not allow him to enroll at Oklahoma State because of his race. He instead enrolled in Fisk University intending to study law.
A white history professor, Theodore Currier, caused him to change his mind and he received his bachelor’s degree in history in 1935. Currier became a close friend and mentor, and when Franklin’s money ran out, Currier loaned him $500 to attend graduate school at Harvard University, where he received his master’s in 1936 and doctorate five years later.
While at Fisk, Franklin met and courted the former Aurelia Whittington. They married on June 11, 1940, at her parents’ home in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Their only child, John Whittington Franklin, was born August 24, 1952.
Franklin began his career as an instructor at Fisk in 1936 and taught at St. Augustine’s and North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), both historically black colleges. In 1945, Alfred A. Knopf approached him about writing a book on African-American history – originally titled From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes — and he spent 13 months writing it.
Then in 1947, he took a post as professor at Howard University, where, in the early 1950s, he traveled from Washington to Thurgood Marshall’s law office to help prepare the brief that led to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1956, he became chairman of the all-white history department at Brooklyn College. Despite his position, he had to visit 35 real estate agents before he was able to buy a house for his young family, and no New York bank would loan him the money.
In 1976, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Franklin for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Franklin’s three-part lecture became the basis for his book Racial Equality in America. He began teaching at Duke in 1982, retired from the history department in 1985 and then spent seven years as professor of legal history at the Duke Law School. In 1995, Franklin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Two years later, President Clinton appointed Franklin chairman of the advisory board for his One America: The President’s Initiative on Race. The seven-member panel was charged with directing a national conversation on race relations. When he was named to the post, Franklin remarked, “I am not sure this is an honor. It may be a burden.” On November 15, 2006, Franklin was announced as the third recipient of the John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity.
Franklin died of congestive heart failure at Duke Hospital March 25. He is survived by his son, John Whittington Franklin, daughter-in-law Karen Roberts Franklin, sister-in-law Bertha W. Gibbs, cousin Grant Franklin Sr. and a host of other relatives, students and friends. Per Franklin’s wishes, there was no funeral or memorial service. However, there will be a celebration of his life and of his late wife, Aurelia, at 11 a.m. June 11 in Duke Chapel in honor of their 69th wedding anniversary.
Concrete Loop features ‘CL History Spotlights’ each week honoring individuals who have played pivotal roles in history. submissions are welcome.