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A pioneer scholar who credits those who came before

November 11, 2005|Bob Thompson | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Tell John Hope Franklin that he's the Rosa Parks of historians, and he lets out a long, astonished laugh.

"Please," he says.

OK, we won't push him on that right now. But the comparison is not as silly as he makes it sound.

Franklin was in Washington recently to talk about his newly published autobiography, "Mirror to America." Now an emeritus professor at Duke, he's a handsome, white-haired man in a gray suit whose upright bearing makes him seem far younger than his 90 years. Fellow historian David Levering Lewis has described him as "a pioneer scholar; a splendid humanist; a shining model to generations of students, scholars and activists," as well as "a man of prodigious generosity, prudent counsel and unaffected grace."

A lot has changed in Franklin's 90 years. Some things have not. In 1921, when he was 6, a conductor put him off a segregated train, along with his sister and mother, because his mother refused to move to the car reserved for black people. In 1947, he published "From Slavery to Freedom," which has been credited with placing the African American experience in the nation's history. It has sold 3.5 million copies and, in its co-written eighth edition, is still in print. He has won honors too numerous to count, including in 1995 the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The night before that medal ceremony, he dined with friends at the Cosmos Club, where he had become the first black member in the early '60s. A white woman handed him a coat check and instructed him to fetch her coat.

So there's been progress, he says at the Madison Hotel, but "we're not where we need to be."

Franklin (he's "John Hope" to his friends) was born in Oklahoma in 1915. His mother, a teacher, took him to school with her; by 5 he was reading and writing. He gave the valedictory speech at his segregated Tulsa high school's graduation. At Nashville's Fisk University, he fell in love with Aurelia Whittington -- with whom he would spend six happily married decades -- and also with the study of history.

"I was a sophomore in college before I met a white man who treated me as his social and intellectual equal," he writes in "Mirror to America." That man was Ted Currier, a Fisk history professor, who not only encouraged Franklin to apply to graduate school at Harvard but also lent him the money to get started there.

At Harvard he made an important decision: He would not be pigeonholed as a black historian. "I wanted to be in the big time," he explains. "I wanted to be out there criticizing the big boys on the main playing field."

Criticize he did. In fact, he calls one negative review of a book by a respected Southern historian the turning point in his career. After Harvard he'd taught at a couple of black colleges in North Carolina, then moved on to Howard University. There he was asked to review E. Merton Coulter's "The South During Reconstruction."

"It was as bad as 'Birth of a Nation,' " he says. Its take on the period after the Civil War was, among other historical distortions, replete with false stereotypes of former slaves displaying brutish behavior toward long-suffering Southern whites.

Franklin's review eviscerated Coulter's book, but there was a problem. Most historians didn't read the Journal of Negro Education, which had published the review. So he sent 200 copies to influential members of his profession. "I think that did as much for me and my reputation among historians as almost anything that I had written or would write," he says.

The concept of historical revisionism has taken on a negative connotation of late, at least among cultural conservatives, who see it as the wrongheaded uprooting of historical truth for political purposes. But to most historians, revising our take on the past as we gain further knowledge and perspective is quite simply what they do. And what John Hope Franklin and his peers were doing, as they brought their scholarship to bear on American history, was revisionist in a fundamentally important way: They were adding the perspectives of people who'd been ignored.

Franklin's writings are too extensive to catalog here. But notable among them is "Reconstruction After the Civil War," a book that helped change historical interpretation of that period.

"From Slavery to Freedom" is also fundamentally revisionist: Franklin's text, as Columbia's Eric Foner has written, forced "establishment" institutions to take black history seriously and made it clear "why no account of American history can be complete that does not accord African-Americans a central role."

Speaking of established institutions: Franklin pioneered the integration of their faculties as well. In 1956, he moved from Howard to become chairman of the history department at a predominantly white institution in New York.

This was big news in the 1950s. Later, Franklin would be recruited by the University of Chicago, where he became the first African American historian to join the permanent faculty.

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