Historian who told the story of black America

John Hope Franklin A victim of racism all his life, he rose above it to counter prejudice through education, helping pave the way for desegregation in US schools and becoming a presidential aide.

President Clinton (R) speaks with John Hope Franklin, the chairman of the new race relations committee, in the Oval Office June 13. Clinton is scheduled to speak in San Diego June 14 on race relations.


The black American historian John Hope Franklin, who has died aged 94, is credited with creating the field of African-American history and working tirelessly to ensure its integration into mainstream American academia. A prolific author, his definitive work, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (1947) has sold more than three million copies. "My challenge," he said, "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." His research took him to segregated archives and libraries where he was not permitted to seek assistance from the white female librarians and, in some places, even to use the bathroom.

Though he suffered racism throughout his life, Franklin refused to become bitter. Instead, he looked to education as the key not only to countering prejudice but also to nurturing necessary role models within the African-American community. At the age of six, he was ejected from a train travelling through Oklahoma when his mother refused to leave a whites-only railway carriage. In his eighties, on the eve of receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, the renowned historian was assumed by guests at his Washington hotel to be merely an attendant responsible for checking coats and cars. An elegant man, Franklin responded that he too was a guest at the hotel: "And, in any case, I was retired."

Born in 1915, the young Franklin lived in Tulsa where he witnessed both the worst race riot in US history in the wake of the First World War, and five years later, the black rights activist WEB du Bois give a rousing speech. The two men later became friends, and du Bois the subject of one of Franklin's numerous books. Barred from admission to the University of Oklahoma on account of his race, Franklin enrolled to read law at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, but soon switched to history. Not only was he the first black person to be accepted unconditionally to Harvard University in 1941 to study for his doctorate, he was also the first to head a major history department when he took the chair at Brooklyn College in 1955. The story made front page news of The New York Times.

After various teaching posts, including a stint at the University of Chicago, Franklin taught at Duke University until retirement, accumulating almost every honour and award the university held. In 1979, he became the first black president of the American Historical Association, the leading organisation of historians in the United States. His public profile ranged from advising on the Brown vs Board of Education case in 1954, which paved the way for the desegregation of schools, to working for President Clinton's task force on race in 1997 and lending his support to Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

"I want to be out there on the firing line," he said, "helping, directing or doing something to try to make this a better world, a better place to live." A keen cultivator of orchids, he even had one named after him, Phalaenopsis John Hope Franklin. John Hope Franklin was born on Jan 2 1915 and died on March 25 of congestive heart failure. His wife, Aurelia, predeceased him. He is survived by his son, John.

* The National