Distinguished historian dies at 94

John Hope Franklin, soft-spoken historian, prolific writer, and educator who utterly transformed the face of African-American history, died Wednesday morning March 25. He was 94.

Franklin died of congestive heart failure at Duke University hospital.

Born less than half a century after slavery was abolished, Franklin grew up in a small, black community in Rentiesville, Okla.

Named after John Hope, former president of now Morehouse College, Franklin was destined to be a groundbreaking entity during his lifetime. 

For Franklin, the realities of southern racism became prevalent at a young age. From being kicked off a train to being denied entry to the University of Oklahoma, nothing stopped Franklin from achieving success. 

Fall 1931, at age 16, Franklin  enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. He graduated in 1935 and was able to attend graduate school at Harvard University with a $500 loan given to him from close friend and professor, Theodore Currier. 

A year later, Franklin received his master’s degree and his doctorate in 1941.

While at Fisk, Franklin met and fell in love with Aurelia Whittington of North Carolina. The two wed June 11, 1940 at her parent’s home in Goldsboro, N.C.

The “son ever on the altar” was elected as a foundation member of Fisk’s new chapter of Phi Beta Kappa honor society in 1953. Fisk University was the first historically black college to have a chapter of its kind.

“Having served on the Board of Trustees with Dr. Franklin, my life certainly has been impacted by him and his influence,” said Fisk student body president Vincent E. Stokes II.  

“His altruistic attitude towards our beloved institution showed me that in spite of the many set backs that we may face as an institution, we overcome those adversities. It was the wisdom he imparted in me as a young Fisk son that I will forever remember.”

In 1945, there were no books about African-American history.  In order to change that, Alfred A. Knopf, an influential publisher, approached Franklin. 

The young professor spent 13 months writing and perfecting From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans.  This book became Franklin’s most pivotal writing and sold more than three million copies after its initial publishing. 

From Slavery to Freedom is also the text used in introductory African-American history courses at Florida A&M University.

“The loss of Dr. Franklin was not only tragic to those in his profession, but to the country as a whole,” said history professor and chairman of the history and political science departments, David Jackson.

“He [Franklin] was a giant in terms of his intellectual contributions. He was as sharp as a tack when I met him at a conference [in North Carolina] in 2007 and he was never elitist and snobbish,” added Jackson.

Franklin and his wife frequently visited Tallahassee—he spoke on campus for history seminars as early as 1959.

While in town, he visited close friends– the late Gladys P. Anderson and Lt. Col. Samuel and Betsy Washington.

Anderson, a FAMU alumna, met Franklin while taking classes at Hampton University in earlier years.

Lt. Col. Samuel and Betsy Washington, graduates and formerly employed by FAMU, were connected to Franklin through social organizations.

“We were all friends [Franklin, Washington, Anderson]. Dr. Franklin and my husband were both Boulé men,” Mrs. Washington said.

Around the early 1950s, Franklin served on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund helping Thurgood Marshall prepare the briefs for the famous Brown vs. Board of Education case.
The advocate for peace was never disheartened. He accompanied a fellow peacemaker, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in 1965.

Franklin retired from Duke’s history department in 1985 as James B. Duke Professor Emeritus, but spent seven years teaching legal history at the Duke Law School. He was the first African-American to hold an endowed chair at Duke.

The scholar has authored over 15 books was a recipient of the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a United States civilian can receive, awarded to him by former President Bill Clinton.

When asked about the large number of FAMU students who have never heard of John Hope Franklin, Jackson said, “students orientation towards learning is different everywhere you go. Franklin’s accomplishments go unnoticed because he operated behind the scenes.”

Jackson also stated the author of a textbook, despite its significance, is not important to a young undergraduate student and the appreciation for an individual such as Franklin, is developmental.

The recipient of more than 130 honorary degrees, Franklin used his personal experiences to set the cornerstone for his research. He has impacted the lives of students and educators of all races.

Franklin was particularly understanding of the sacrifices his family members made so he could be successful.

“No one knows the price that I’ve paid for what I’ve gotten out of this world and this life,” he said.