Local News

Race relations champion John Hope Franklin dies

Posted March 25, 2009 2:38 p.m. EDT
Updated March 26, 2009 9:53 a.m. EDT

— Former Duke University historian and scholar John Hope Franklin, who championed better race relations in the U.S. for decades, died Wednesday morning. He was 94.

Franklin died at Duke University Hospital of congestive heart failure, university officials said. He is survived by his son, John Whittington Franklin, and other family members. A memorial service will be held in Duke Chapel on June 11, which would have been his and his late wife's 69th anniversary.

“John Hope Franklin lived for nearly a century and helped define that century,” Duke President Richard Brodhead said in a statement. “A towering historian, he led the recognition that African-American history and American history are one. With his grasp of the past, he spent a lifetime building a future of inclusiveness, fairness and equality. Duke has lost a great citizen and a great friend.”

also called Franklin a leading moral figure for North Carolina and the nation and said his insight would be missed.

“John Hope Franklin was a tremendous leader, historian and friend to North Carolina and to the nation.” Gov. Beverly Perdue said in a statement. “He personified giving and his work to advance the understanding of African-American contributions was unmatched by any other. He will be sadly missed.”

Long before former President Bill Clinton named him to lead a national panel on race relations, Franklin was a respected historian whose studies and writings focused on racism and the obstacles to racial equality in America.

"It was necessary, as a black historian, to have a personal agenda," he once said. "My challenge 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."

Franklin's story began in the tiny, all-black town of Rentiesville, in eastern Oklahoma, where his father was a lawyer and his mother taught elementary school. They taught him the value of hard work and diligence, but he learned the lessons of racism from the segregated South.

When he was 6, he and his mother were removed from a train because they refused to move to a compartment for blacks. Later, he tried to help a blind, white woman cross a street in Tulsa, Okla.

"Can you imagine being rejected by a blind, white woman in the middle of the street while I was helping her across?" he said. "When she heard that I was black, she told me to take my filthy hands off her."

When he was 19, he was threatened with lynching in Mississippi because he had the audacity of walking into an ice cream parlor and asking to be served.

Franklin received a bachelor's degree from all-black Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1935 – he was denied admission to the University of Oklahoma because of his race – and he went on to earn master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University.

History fascinated him because it provided a chance to confront the past while at the same time creating future opportunities.

"If the house is to be set in order, one cannot begin with the present. He must begin with the past," he said.

While at Fisk, Franklin met Goldsboro native Aurelia Whittington. They married in 1940, and after he finished his studies at Harvard, the couple returned to the South. He taught at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh and the North Carolina College for Negroes, the predecessor to North Carolina Central University, while she worked as a librarian.

Before leaving the Triangle in 1947 to join the faculty of Howard University in Washington, D.C., he published his seminal book, "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans," which has sold millions of copies and been translated into six languages.

While teaching at Howard, Franklin joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team that helped develop the sociological case for the Brown v. Board of Education case that led to landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 that ended the legal segregation of black and white children in public schools.

He also took part in civil rights marches with Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1960s.

“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,” he said.

In 1956, he was named chairman of the all-white history department at Brooklyn College, becoming the first black to head a major history department. He spent eight years there before moving to the University of Chicago, where he again chaired the history department and held an endowed faculty position.

The National Endowment for the Humanities selected Franklin in 1976 for the Jefferson Lecture, the government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. His three-part lecture became the basis for his book "Racial Equality in America."

Franklin returned to the Triangle in 1983, when he was named the James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke. He also taught legal history at the Duke law school for seven years. His relationship with Duke spawned the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies and the Franklin Humanities Institute. The former attracts students from a range of disciplines to explore issues like race relations and globalization, while the latter hosts an annual seminar on a humanities issue.

Clinton tapped him in 1997 to chair a seven-member panel for the president's Initiative on Race. The effort tried to promote a dialog about lingering racism in American in an effort to breach divides and bring the country together.

"We have to get to know each other in a way we don't," Franklin said. "I'm not suggesting that this, in itself, is a final healing process, but it certainly is the beginning."

Yet, critics called the group's final report, which called for the creation of a permanent presidential council on race, a list of platitudes that wouldn't move the nation forward.

Clinton also awarded Franklin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, in recognition of his scholarship and service.

Even then, Franklin confronted racism.

While staying at a Washington, D.C., hotel the night before the medal ceremony, a woman asked him to get her coat, and a man handed him his keys and asked him to bring his car up, Franklin said.

“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,” he said.

Franklin's final honor came in 2006, when he won the John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanities. The prize was created through the Library of Congress.

After Aurelia Franklin died in 1999 after a long illness, John Franklin lived quietly in Durham during his final years, occasionally making public statements, such as endorsing Barack Obama for president. Obama's election, he said, signaled the U.S. was finally turning the corner in race relations after years of struggle.

"One lives by hope," he said. "I do. It's not merely my middle name, it's my life. I live by hope."