America’s Foremost Black Historian Dies

Published March 30, 2009

Author and 70-year veteran of scholarship John Hope Franklin, best known for his book "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans," died Wednesday after suffering congestive heart failure. Long before universities began establishing Black Studies departments, Dr. Franklin, who earned a Ph.D. from Harvard, plus more than 100 honorary degrees, was a pioneer.

Born in Oklahoma to a lawyer and school teacher, Dr. Franklin was literally baptized into Black history by fire when his dad’s office was burned down in the Tulsa race riots, the state’s worst ever. He attended school at Fisk University in Nashville with plans to follow his father into a legal career before a White professor swayed him toward history. Dr. Franklin went on to publish hundreds of academic papers and 16 books. From Slavery to Freedom has sold 3 million copies since its first printing in the 1940s.

One of Franklin’s contemporaries, New York University historian David Levering Lewis, who studied at Fisk University with him, told the New York Times, ““What distinguishes his history or historiography is that he, like few other historians, wrote a book that transformed the way we understand a major social phenomenon.”

Because of Franklin, said President Obama when he learned of the scholar's death, "We all have a richer understanding of who we are as Americans and our journey as a people."

"He is the prince of contemporary American historians," says Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.  Gates credits Franklin, whom he calls an "intellectual God Father" for creating a path for him and others to follow in American Higher Education.

Throughout his life, he also contributed to some of the most significant milestones in the Black Experience: In 1954, Dr. Franklin helped research the lawsuit that led to NAACP lawyer Thurgood  Marshall’s successful argument before the Supreme Court in overturning segregated public schools. Decades later in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton appointed the scholar to chair a national commission on race relations. Dr. Franklin’s career as a history professor took him to Howard University, Brooklyn College and the University of Chicago, eventually landing him on the faculty at Duke. The North Carolina College recognized its distinguish instructor with a research facility named in his honor.

Dr. Franklin's wife of 59 years, Aurelia, died in 1999. Their son John W. Franklin is a director at the Smithsonian Institute.

Written by Eddie Allen

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