Thursday, March 26, 2009

Historian John Hope Franklin Dies at Age 94

"I want to be out there on the firing line, helping, directing or doing something to try to make this a better world, a better place to live." -
John Hope Franklin

I just learned this morning that one of my intellectual heroes passed away yesterday. I am truly sad. And while I had planned a different post for today, I feel honor-bound to say a few words about this truly great American.

Unfortunately, I never got to meet Dr. Franklin in person. Just recently I had written a letter to him asking if I might find out where he would be speaking or appearing in public in the near future so that I might meet him and express my gratitude toward he and his historical scholarship. I wish I made the attempt earlier.

Dr. Franklin was born the grandson of a slave, in Rentiesville, Oklahoma in 1915. His father was a lawyer and moved the family to Tulsa in the 1920s. He attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee where he fell in love with history after being mentored by Professor Theodore Currier. After Fisk, Franklin attended Harvard where he received his master's and doctorate degrees.

Franklin's academic career took him to many locations: first back to teach at Fisk, then North Carolina Central University, Howard (where he helped Thurgood Marshall prepare for the Brown vs Board of Education case), Brooklyn College, the University of Chicago (while a professor at Chicago he participated in Dr. King's march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965). In 1982 he came to Duke University.

Dr. Franklin was a prodigious writer, with books including The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South, The Free Negro in North Carolina, George Washington Williams: A Biography, and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North. He also has edited many works, including a book about his father called My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, with his son, John Whittington Franklin. Franklin completed his autobiography, Mirror to America, in 2005, which is a wonderful look at a life of service. Dr. Franklin received more than 130 honorary degrees, and served as president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the American Studies Association, the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association.

In a statement to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2002, Franklin summed up his own career: “More than 60 years ago, I began the task of trying to write a new kind of Southern History. It would be broad in its reach, tolerant in its judgments of Southerners, and comprehensive in its inclusion of everyone who lived in the region. ... the long, tragic history of the continuing black-white conflict compelled me to focus on the struggle that has affected the lives of the vast majority of people in the United States. ... Looking back, I can plead guilty of having provided only a sketch of the work I laid out for myself.”

I have read many works by this master craftsman of history and I have never been disappointed by one. That is not easy to say about a man that wrote so much. He leaves this world having made it a better place and having inspired several generations of historians.

You have earned the rest Dr. well.

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