Thursday, March 26, 2009

John Hope Franklin, revered historian, dies at 94

U.S. historian and civil rights advocate John Hope Franklin, credited with helping create the field of African-American history, died on Wednesday at age 94.

Franklin's book From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, published in 1947, is still considered the definitive account of the black experience in America. The longtime Duke professor died of congestive heart failure at Duke Hospital in Durham, North Carolina.

He worked with Thurgood Marshall, later the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in the 1950s in which the Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

Franklin joined civil rights protesters in a 1965 march for voting rights led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1997, he was appointed chairman of President Bill Clinton's One America Initiative, charged with directing a national conversation on race relations.

The grandson of a slave, Franklin's scholarly work was informed by his first-hand experience with racism.

Reuters tells the story of an encounter Franklin had prior to being honored by Clinton:

In a speech in 2005, he said that on the evening before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Clinton in 1995, a woman at his club in Washington asked him to get her coat. About the same time, a man at a hotel handed his car keys to Franklin and told him to get his car.

"I patiently explained to him that I was a guest in the hotel, as I presumed he was, and I had no idea where his automobile was. And, in any case, I was retired," Franklin said.

For a thoughtful tribute to Franklin, check out a column by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell.

President Barack Obama released this statement:

Because of the life John Hope Franklin lived, the public service he rendered, and the scholarship that was the mark of his distinguished career, we all have a richer understanding of who we are as Americans and our journey as a people.

On a personal note, From Slavery to Freedom was required reading when I was an undergraduate. I recently was thrilled to see that my daughter is taking a class where she is studying Franklin's work.

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