Yesterday the great Historian John Hope Franklin passed away at the age of 94.
I did my doctoral work at Duke University and had the the opportunity to encounter Professor Franklin many times during my graduate training. Each time it was a privilege because John Hope Franklin was a superstar intellectual who managed to be utterly open and personally humble with students. He made us feel like partners, rather than subordinates, in academic inquiry.
In an age when black public intellectuals are rewarded for pop-culture peppered verbal dexterity and aggressive self-promotion; Dr. Franklin maintained a mode of inquiry which exposed injustice and dismantled inadequate arguments with soft-spoken dignity. His gentle manner sometimes led interlocutors to underestimate him, but it was not a mistake made more than once, because Franklin’s razor sharp intellect and quick wit were memorable.
John Hope Franklin had deep personal and professional knowledge of America’s vicious racial legacy. Franklin researched America’s story of slavery and freedom in segregated archives. He was relegated to separate tables and irregular library hours so that white patrons would not be exposed to a literate black man researching Southern history. Franklin uncovered the vicious legacy of our racial past and engaged in decades of the struggle to change our racial present: from marching in Selma to endorsing Barack Obama.
Though racism and racial inequality disgusted him, Franklin remained ever optimistic about the American democratic project. Perhaps because he’d lived through the age of racial terrorism John Hope Franklin routinely denied the insistence by his privileged students that "nothing has changed" in America’s racial story. Franklin was clear that racism was not eliminated and inequality was not resolved, but America was undoubtedly a different country in the late 20th and early 21st century. Franklin pushed us to acknowledge change across time and he encouraged us to take some measure of comfort in that change.
Franklin was no post-racial theorist, but he helped us remember that it mattered that slavery was ended, Jim Crow dismantled, and a black man elected president. He asked us to remember that black women and men struggled along with their white allies to make America a country more true to her ideals.
John Hope Franklin was a giant. He will be greatly missed.