Sunday, April 5, 2009

Obituary: John Hope Franklin

I should've done something like this a long time ago. ~ No1KState

African-American whose scholarship fostered equality
By Jurek Martin

Published: April 3 2009 19:39 Last updated: April 3 2009 19:39

Most historians never experience the times about which they write. But John Hope Franklin, who died last week, not only defined the black experience in America in historical terms, above all in his classic book From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, but for much of his 94 years he lived it.

He was born, on January 2 1915, in the black shanty town of Rentiesville, Oklahoma, where his lawyer father, Buck, had moved after being denied the right to practise in his native Louisiana. When he was six he saw his father’s law office burned to the ground during the race riots in nearby Tulsa. At 11, he heard the great black intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois, preach against discrimination. (They later became friends.)

He went to the all-black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, as the University of Oklahoma would not admit him because of his race. He took his Harvard entrance exams at Vanderbilt University, also in Tennessee, in a classroom in which, a janitor told him, no black person had ever been allowed even to sit down.

Harvard masters and doctoral degrees under his belt, he found himself driving, with Aurelia, his new wife and Fisk sweetheart, across the Carolinas from Charleston to Raleigh on December 7 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. But he never knew about it until he reached his destination. The car had no radio and he could not be served at the whites-only filling stations and diners en route where he might have picked up the news.

He volunteered for wartime service as a historian or in a clerical capacity with the war department and the US navy, but was never hired. His brother, a school headmaster, did enlist but was assigned only menial kitchen duties and was subject to so much racial abuse by white soldiers that he committed suicide shortly after demobilisation. Franklin himself remembers being crammed into a segregated train in Philadelphia and observing four white men lounging alone one carriage away; they were German prisoners of war.

In the 1950s, his reputation already established by the publication of From Slavery to Freedom in 1947, he was appointed chair of the history department at Brooklyn College in New York, the first black person to achieve such status in the US. But he found he could not rent or buy a house close to work because of the colour of his skin. Much later, when he was 80 and had just emerged from the White House, he was hosting a dinner at the Cosmos Club, the exclusive Washington institution of which he had become the first black member 30 years earlier. A white woman who was leaving peremptorily handed him a ticket to get her coat from the check room.

It all amounted to a personal history not untypical of an African-American of his generation, especially one from the Jim Crow South, which could have made him a very angry young, or old, man. Indeed, the sense of injustice burned deeply in him, particularly on the subject of education, but, as a generally mild-mannered intellectual scholar, he rarely allowed himself to wear it on his sleeve.

However, he could deploy it in the cause of racial equality. Thurgood Marshall, the brilliant black lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, saw he needed Franklin’s expertise in preparing his arguments before the Supreme Court in the Brown vs Board of Education case on school segregation, decided in 1954. This hung on the definition of what constituted “separate but equal”, then broadly accepted in law. Franklin and his team provided both the history and the context to bolster Marshall’s case. As he recalled: “Using the findings of the historians, the lawyers argued that the history of segregation laws reveals that their main purpose was to organise the community upon the basis of a superior white and an inferior Negro caste.” The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favour of the NAACP and the whole edifice of laws upholding segregation began to crumble. Ten years later, Franklin was marching with Martin Luther King on Selma, Alabama.

But his enduring force was as an academic and author, not as a public advocate, though it surely could be argued that the end results were similar. From Slavery to Freedom, frequently updated over the years, altered the ways in which America examined its history by proving that African-Americans were not marginal members of society, as had been the prevalent academic view, but an integral part of the country’s development. They had fought in the revolution and the civil war and had provided the slave labour that sustained the South.

He gave rise to a range of studies into American racial and sexual minorities. He was the godfather of a new generation of black scholars, such as Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West.

The sheer quality of his work, sustained over many years, always found him a home in the best American universities, Howard, Chicago and Duke, as well as a year as a visiting professor at Cambridge, England. He was the first black president of the American Historical Association and the first black person to present a paper to the segregated Southern Historical Association. He received the ultimate American civil honour, the Medal of Freedom, from President Bill Clinton in 1995.

Perhaps his final satisfaction, exceeding even the orchids that he cultivated at his North Carolina home, was the election of Barack Obama last year. He remembered a game he would play with his schoolteacher mother, Mollie. “She used to say that if anyone asks you what you want to be when you grow up, tell them you want to be the first Negro president of the United States. And just the words were so far-fetched, so incredible, that we used to really have fun, just saying it.”

The incredible having been achieved, he died of congestive heart failure, Aurelia having died 10 years earlier. They are survived by their one son.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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