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John Hope Franklin

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JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: 1915-2009: Noted historian wrote about blacks, South

By JIM AUCHMUTEY

John Hope Franklin winced when people called him America's greatest black historian, as many did. It would be more fitting to call him the greatest historian of black America.

In more than 70 years of scholarship, he documented the African-American experience as no one had done before --- a body of work that earned him more than 100 honorary degrees, making him perhaps the most decorated academician of his time.

Franklin, 94, died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C. He was best known as the author of the groundbreaking 1947 "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans," but that was only his most visible achievement.

Starting in 1936 at Fisk University, Franklin published hundreds of academic articles and 16 books about African-American and Southern history before ending his career as a professor at Duke. He was part of a generation of historians, including C. Vann Woodward and David Potter, who challenged the racial stereotyping and "lost cause" sentimentality that had dominated Southern history.

Unlike earlier historians, Franklin viewed the Civil War as more of a liberation than a defeat for the region. "It had been delivered from the domination of an institution that had stifled its economic development and rendered completely ineffective its intellectual life," he wrote.

Franklin challenged prevailing thought outside the ivy walls as well. Early in his career, he helped research the lawsuit that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP took to the Supreme Court in 1954 to overturn public school segregation. Decades later, he went to Capitol Hill to testify against the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork, whom he saw as an enemy of civil rights. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton appointed Franklin chairman of his national commission on race relations.

Franklin's activism was rooted in experience. Born in 1915 in Oklahoma, he was the son of a lawyer and a schoolteacher who named him John Hope after the president of Atlanta University. The family was moving to Tulsa in 1921 when one of the worst race riots in American history broke out and Mr. Franklin's law office was burned down.

Franklin planned to follow his father into law when he went away to Fisk. Instead, he fell under the sway of a white history professor, Theodore Currier, who inspired him to change disciplines and enroll at Harvard, then loaned him $500 when he was accepted. He earned a doctorate there in 1941.

Holding a degree from a prestigious university didn't shield Franklin from racial insults. When he returned south to teach at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, he caused a stir by walking into the whites-only state archives. It had never occurred to anyone there that a black scholar might want to use the archives. Franklin was given a room of his own to work in, safely segregated from other scholars.

It was one of many such slights over the years. After Pearl Harbor, Franklin attempted to volunteer for a Navy desk job but was turned down because of his skin color. As president of the Southern Historical Association, he organized a convention in Memphis but declined to attend because he couldn't stay in the segregated headquarters hotel. When he was named history chairman at Brooklyn College --- the first black man to head a history department at a major white college --- scores of real estate agents refused to show him houses.

Despite such episodes, Franklin's work remained remarkably free of anger or ideology. "He has never bowed to the pressure of fashions and the propaganda of black nationalism," historian Woodward said in 1991.

Franklin had published only one book when editor Alfred Knopf approached him in the 1940s about writing a history of Negro Americans. He didn't want to do it at first; the subject seemed too broad. But he acquiesced, in part because no comprehensive history existed. The result, "From Slavery to Freedom," was "the story of the strivings of the nameless millions who have sought adjustment in a new and sometimes hostile world," he wrote in the preface.

Franklin wrote and edited many other books during a career that took him to Howard University, Brooklyn College and the University of Chicago. One of the best-received works, "The Militant South" (1956), explored the antebellum roots of the region's martial spirit and appetite for violence, which reared their heads during the civil rights struggle.

After years of teaching in the North, Franklin moved back to the South to teach at Duke in 1980. The move suited him. Franklin cut a distinguished figure, with his erect 6-foot frame, thin mustache and courtly manners, and he found the gentler pace of Southern life to his liking.

"The South, as a place, is as attractive to blacks as it is to whites," he said in 1995. "Blacks, even when they left the South, didn't stop having affection for it. They just couldn't make it there. Then they found the North had its problems, too. ..."

Franklin lived in Durham with his former college sweetheart and wife of 59 years, Aurelia, a librarian who died in 1999. Their only child, John W. Franklin, became a program director at the Smithsonian Institution.

The Franklin home was filled with artwork by great African-American painters. He worked in a downstairs area he dryly called "the slave quarters." Out back, there was a greenhouse where he indulged his passionate hobby of raising orchids.

But Franklin's comfortable valedictory life masked something distinctly uncomfortable: his conviction that America was backsliding on race. During interviews late in life, he expressed dismay that school desegregation was failing, that affirmative action was discredited and that the Voting Rights Act was being used to challenge the drawing of majority-black congressional districts. He thought he saw the past returning in different clothing.

"I'm not optimistic," he said. "I really am not."

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN BOOKS

> "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans" (1947, updated eight times, most recently in 2000)

> "The Militant South" (1956)

> "The Emancipation Proclamation" (1963)

> "A Southern Odyssey" (1976)

> "Racial Equality in America" (1976)

> "Race and History" (1990)

> "The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin" (2005)

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© 2009 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Mar. 26, 2009
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