Sunday, March 29, 2009

Remembering John Hope Franklin

John Hope Franklin, who died this week at the age of 94, is remembered as a paradigm-shifting historian in the New York Times. "When you think of ‘From Slavery to Freedom,’" noted David Levering Lewis, "there’s before and there’s after....Before him you had a field of study that had been feeble and marginalized, full of a pretty brutal discounting of the impact of people of color. And he moved it into the main American narrative. It empowered a whole new field of study.” Beyond his scholarly contributions, "few historians achieved the stature, both as scholars and as moral figures — and as combinations of the two — that Dr. Franklin did," writes Peter Applebome.

Walter Dellinger, writing in the Washington Post, called Franklin "one of the most remarkable Americans of the 20th century. He was the master of the great American story of that century, the story of race. John Hope wrote it, he taught it, and he lived it." Hat tip.

"For seven years," Dellinger recalled,
he and I taught constitutional history together at Duke, and I never ceased to marvel at how he managed both to embody this history and yet recount it with an extraordinarily candid honesty. Our students would fall into the deepest hush while he recounted his experiences researching his epic 1947 work, "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans" (reprinted scores of times since, and still widely read), in segregated libraries at Southern universities and Southern state libraries. He would describe the various Jim Crow rules he was required to navigate -- a separate table from white patrons, a prohibition on being waited on by white female librarians and similar indignities -- without a trace of bitterness.

Stanley Katz writes on the Chronicle of Higher Education blog that of all of Franklin's books, his favorite is "The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860, originally his Harvard doctoral dissertation, first published in 1943. The book was pathbreaking in many respects, especially in its mining of manuscript court records, and I think it has never sufficiently been recognized as one of the first great research exercises in my own scholarly field, American legal history."

Katz's favorite memory of Franklin comes from their years at the University of Chicago. One evening they were both driving home late at night after a tenure meeting.

John Hope drove a large Mercedes-Benz sedan and got across 53rd St. just before the light changed. I was following in my decrepit little Rambler American, and sailed through the light, only to be stopped immediately by a police cruiser. John Hope noticed, and pulled over to the curb. As the cop was bawling me out, he noticed the car stopped ahead. “Is that Professor John Hope Franklin?” “Yes it is, officer.” “Well, then, young man, if you can just get me his autograph you can drive on home.”
Franklin not only wrote about the legal history of African Americans, he lived it, serving as an expert witness in desegregation cases years before he helped Thurgood Marshall with an historical brief in Brown v. Board of Education. After much effort, the team of historians had made legal historians out of the lawyers, he told me in an interview a couple of years ago. I asked whether working on the case had an impact on him, as well. "Of course!" he said.

Stories about the historian and the lawyers can be found in one of my favorite memoirs, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin.