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John Hope Franklin
January 2, 1915 – March 25, 2009
Historian


John Hope Franklin was a historian and past president of Phi Beta Kappa, the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Southern Historical Association. The John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago, Franklin is best known for his work From Slavery to Freedom, first published in 1947, and continually updated. More than three million copies have been sold. In 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Franklin was born in Rentiesville, Oklahoma and named after John Hope. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He graduated from Fisk University in 1935 and gained a doctorate in history in 1941 from Harvard University.

Franklin met and courted Aurelia Whittington at Fisk. 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. Aurelia was a librarian. Their marriage lasted 59 years, until January 27, 1999, when she succumbed to a long illness.

"My challenge," Franklin said, "was to weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly."

In the Second World War, Franklin would consider serving only in a clerical capacity, and offered to run an office. When the recruiter commented on his color, Franklin left, and refused from then on to serve his country in any way.

In the early 1950s, Franklin served on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team led by Thurgood Marshall that helped develop the sociological case for Brown v. Board of Education. This led to the 1954 United States Supreme Court decision ending the legal segregation of black and white children in public schools.

Professor and Researcher

Franklin's teaching career began at Fisk University and continued during World War II at St. Augustine's College and North Carolina College. From 1947 and 1956, he taught at Howard University. In 1956, Franklin was selected to chair the history department at Brooklyn College, the first person of color to head a major history department. Franklin served there until 1964, when he was recruited by the University of Chicago. He spent 1962 as a visiting professor at the University of Cambridge holding the Professorship of American History and Institutions.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis said that while he was deciding to become a historian, news came that Franklin, his mentor, had been named departmental chairman at Brooklyn College. "Now that certainly is a distinction. It had never happened before that a person of color had chaired a major history department. That meant a lot to me. If I had doubt about (the) viability of a career in history, that example certainly help put to rest such concerns."

In researching his prize-winning biographies of W. E. B. Du Bois, Lewis said he became aware of Franklin's "courage during that period in the 1950s when Du Bois became an un-person, when many progressives were tarred and feathered with the brush of subversion. John Hope Franklin was a rock; he was loyal to his friends. In the case of W. E. B. Du Bois, Franklin spoke out in his defense, not (about) Du Bois's communism, but of the right of an intellectual to express ideas that were not popular. I find that admirable. It was a high risk to take and we may be heading again into a period when the free concourse of ideas in the academy will have a price put upon it. In the final years of an active teaching career, I will have John Hope Franklin's example of high scholarship, great courage and civic activism.”

From 1964 through 1968, Franklin was a professor of history at the University of Chicago, and chair of the department from 1967 to 1970. He was named to the endowed position of John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor, which he held from 1969 to 1982. He was appointed to the Fulbright Board of Foreign Scholarships, 1962-69, and was its chair from 1966 to 1969.

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.

Franklin was appointed to the U.S. Delegation to the UNESCO General Conference, Belgrade (1980).

In 1983, Franklin was appointed the James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke University. In 1985, he took emeritus status. Franklin was also Professor of Legal History at the Duke University Law School from 1985-92.

Later Life

In 2005, at the age of 90, Franklin published and lectured on his new autobiography, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. In 2006, he received the John W. Kluge Prize and as the recipient lectured on the successes and failures of race relations in America in Where do We Go from Here?

In 2008, Franklin endorsed presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Franklin died at Duke University Medical Center on the morning of March 25, 2009.

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