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James T. KeaneFebruary 28, 2023
John Hope Franklin (Composite image/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1948, America reviewed a book on the history of African Americans in the United States: From Slavery to Freedom. In 2006, America reviewed another book, a memoir titled Mirror to America. What did the two books, reviewed 58 years apart, have in common? They were by the same author: the noted historian of Black America, John Hope Franklin.

Called “one of America’s most accomplished historians” by the American Historical Association, John Hope Franklin was born in 1915 in Rentiesville, Okla. His father, Buck Colbert Franklin, was a prominent lawyer in the Black community in Oklahoma, and defended Black survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. John Hope Franklin attended a segregated high school in Tulsa, Okla., and enrolled at Fisk University, a historically Black university in Nashville, Tenn. He earned his doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1941, working as a dishwasher to make ends meet. He said years later that while he reveled in Harvard’s scholarly environment, “the faculty’s smug racism and casual anti-Semitism appalled him.”

“More than any other scholar, Franklin has made African-American history an essential part of American history,” wrote Graham Russell Hodges in his 2006 review of Franklin’s memoir.

Franklin attempted several times to volunteer for World War II, but was turned down because, he later wrote, whites were uncomfortable with a Black man having his level of education. He taught instead at St. Augustine’s College in North Carolina and at what is now North Carolina Central University. In the 1950s, he also served on Thurgood Marshall’s NAACP Legal Defense Fund team, assisting with the sociological case for Brown v. Board of Education.

Later academic appointments included Howard University, Brooklyn College, Cambridge University, Howard University, Harvard, Cornell, UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago (from 1964 to 1982). Shortly after his arrival in Chicago, he participated in the famous 1965 march from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery, Ala., with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

He finished his academic career in various roles at Duke University, becoming a professor emeritus in 1992. In a 1990 review in America of Franklin's Race and History, Patrick Samway, S.J., wrote that "Professor Franklin is without doubt the dean of black history in the United States."

Franklin’s third book of many, From Slavery to Freedom was released in 1947. The book traced the story of African Americans from Africa through the slave trade era all the way to his contemporary milieu. “From the Pharaohs of the fourth millenium [sic] before Christ to the founding of the United Nations is the scope of Dr. Franklin’s broad canvas,” wrote the reviewer, Charles Keenan, S.J. He praised the book for revealing a number of historical realities unknown to (or ignored by) white America. Among them were that Georgia’s original constitution forbade slavery; that a Black man, Benjamin Banneker, helped Pierre L’Enfant with his plans for the city of Washington, D.C.; and that “the original draft of the Declaration of Independence denounced the King of England for fostering the horrors of the slave trade.”

From Slavery to Freedom became a popular textbook, selling over 3,000,000 copies and being translated into Japanese, German, French, Chinese and other languages. It is still in print, now in its ninth edition.

Franklin published his memoir, Witness to America, in 2005 at the age of 90; over the course of his career, he had witnessed and researched almost every facet of the African American struggle for justice and equality in the United States. “More than any other scholar, Franklin has made African-American history an essential part of American history,” wrote Graham Russell Hodges in his 2006 review of Franklin’s memoir. “In an academic career that has spanned seven decades, Franklin has published innumerable path-breaking books. His name is well known to generations of college students and history buffs.” Teaching during the years of attempted racial integration in the United States, Franklin’s superb scholarship made him “a pillar of the academic establishment,” Hodges wrote.

Indeed, Franklin served over the course of his career as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, the Southern Historical Association and Phi Beta Kappa. Among many honors (there’s even an orchid named after him, the Phalaenopsis John Hope Franklin), he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1964, and in 1995 President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

“Racial discrimination, though, remained an unpleasant companion for Franklin,” Hodges wrote. The night before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Franklin later recalled, a woman in a Washington club mistook him for a bellman, and a man at his hotel handed him his car keys and told him to get his car.

John Hope Franklin died on March 25, 2009, two months after the inauguration of America’s first African American president, Barack Obama, whom he had endorsed. “I will always think of John Hope as the historian of the South who grasped the complexity of Southern public life as shaped by the horror of personal slavery,” said the historian Nell Irvin Painter at the time of Franklin’s death. “Franklin was the first great American historian to reckon the price owed in violence, autocracy and militarism.”

Franklin’s third book of many, From Slavery to Freedom was released in 1947. The book traced the story of African Americans from Africa through the slave trade era all the way to his contemporary milieu.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Good Friday,” by Tamara Nicholl-Smith. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Former Jesuit, failed Senate candidate and Nixon speechwriter: the colorful life of John McLaughlin

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

Joan Didion: A chronicler of modern life’s horrors and consolations

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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