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Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938–1988

by John Hope Franklin
Louisiana State University Press, 450 pp., $29.95

The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-First Century

by John Hope Franklin
University of Missouri Press, 87 pp., $14.95

The Facts of Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of John Hope Franklin

edited by Eric Anderson, edited by Alfred A. Moss Jr.
Louisiana State University Press, 239 pp., $14.95 (paper)


John Hope Franklin, now in his late seventies and a professor emeritus at Duke University, is one of the most respected historians of the United States. Indeed to judge by the numbers of honorary degrees, presidencies of professional associations, distinguished lectureships, and other forms of special recognition he has received, it would be easy to conclude that he is the most esteemed living American historian. Yet his very substantial body of work has not visibly influenced other scholars in his field as much as his eminence might have led one to expect (apart, that is, from his extremely devoted doctoral students at the University of Chicago, where he taught between 1964 and 1982). Although I have not made a systematic survey, it is my impression that only on relatively rare occasions have his numerous books and articles been discussed in the historiographic footnotes that scholars use to connect their own work with current trends of historical thought. There has been no “Franklin thesis” at the center of debate in his fields of southern and African American history, and no conspicuous “Franklin school” of disciples.

How are we to explain the veneration of the man while his work is relatively neglected? It might have something to do with the difficulties of his unique position as the first African American historian to move from the segregated world of “Negro History,” when it was an activity carried on by black scholars for a black audience, into the previously white-dominated field of the history of the American South. As Franklin himself describes his “field of concentration” in his recent book of collected essays, it is “the two racial groups, black and white, the principal actors in the drama of southern history.”

By thus defining himself and in fact devoting approximately equal attention to southerners of both races in his work, he has made an effort to abolish the color line in southern historical studies. This has made his work suspect to those with a stake in preserving historiographical segregation. I know from comments I heard in the 1950s and early 1960s that some of the older generation of white historians of the South believed that no African American had the “objectivity” or “detachment” to write about such subjects, which would explain some of the early resistance to giving full weight to his scholarship.

Franklin, in fact, always made strenuous efforts to combat this presumption of bias by avoiding explicit moral and ideological judgments in his historical writing. Ironically, this commitment to objectivity may have made his work seem less than powerfully relevant to politically committed younger historians of the 1960s. They perhaps felt that his scholarship did not lend itself readily enough to the polemical needs of the struggle for black freedom and so could not serve as a model. Arguably Franklin did in fact do important original work that should have been historiographically influential—and may actually have been in a covert and unrecognized way—but his contribution has been underrated, probably because of both condescension toward black scholars who work in what whites regard as mainstream history and activist black scholars’ lack of interest in work that does not lend itself readily to contemporary ideological or cultural battles. Honoring him personally as a pioneer of academic integration was less threatening to white presumptions of control over the American past than taking his scholarly achievements seriously; considering him simply as a black high-achiever was easier for black radicals than giving close attention to his views on the difference between scholarship and propaganda.

The appearance in 1989 of Professor Franklin’s own selected essays, followed in 1991 by a volume of essays in his honor by his students and other scholars who acknowledge a debt to his work as well as the publication of his 1992 Paul Anthony Brick lectures at the University of Missouri, provide an opportunity to reevaluate his career and further explore the reasons for what I take to be his oddly ambiguous reputation. The selected essays in Race and History contain autobiographical reminiscences and reflections on “the profession” of history, as well as historical investigation of such subjects; they also provide a good starting point for understanding the man behind the work as well as the work itself.

Franklin was born in 1915 in an all-black hamlet in Oklahoma. His father was a scholarly lawyer and his mother a teacher, and he acquired a strong love of learning at an early age. But his father’s law practice did not prosper in a setting where most blacks were too poor to afford a lawyer and most white judges gave short shrift to black attorneys. Consequently the family was impoverished much of the time. A move to Tulsa shortly after a devastating race riot there in 1921 did not improve the family’s economic situation very much, but it did permit young Franklin to attend better schools. Although painfully aware that the physical facilities of the black high school were much inferior to those of its white counterpart, Franklin clearly got a good education. (It is troubling to realize that the legally segregated high schools of the past could be superior to the unofficially segregated black urban high schools of today.)

Franklin’s academic career began in 1931 at a Negro college—the conventional choice for an upwardly mobile member of the South’s black middle class. He attended Fisk University in Nashville, where the white chairman of the history department urged him to pursue his interest in historical scholarship and to apply to Harvard for graduate work. (It is possible that Franklin’s lifelong resistance to black separatism was reinforced by such positive early experiences with white teachers.) He was the first African American admitted to Harvard graduate school with nothing more than a BA from a black college, but he was denied a fellowship and during the first year he had to earn his tuition and expenses by taking a variety of jobs.

Far from dazzled by Harvard and its luminaries, Franklin recalls that “the course of study was satisfactory but far from extraordinary.” He left Harvard as soon as he could, not wishing “to be in Cambridge another day,” and indicating that, rather than accept the Harvard fellowships that were now being offered, he preferred to teach in a small black college in the South while finishing his dissertation. Anyone who has ever been a graduate student at Harvard will be aware that most Harvard students and faculty would be likely to regard such a choice as the height of eccentricity. Obviously Franklin had a sense of autonomy and a self-confidence that permitted him to strike out on his own and do the unexpected. If a white professor at Fisk had awakened his ambition, his somewhat distant relations with his white professors at Harvard had shown him that he had to make his own way. His dissertation, a ground-breaking study of the free Negro in North Carolina before the Civil War, owed relatively little to the interests and preoccupations of his teachers at Harvard.1

Franklin’s initial decision to teach in black colleges was inevitable given the prospects for African American scholars on the eve of the Second World War. In fact no white colleges or universities were willing to hire blacks for potentially tenured positions. In 1939 it must have appeared to everyone, including Franklin himself, that his destiny was to follow the path of an older generation of African American historians, and, as such talented and prolific scholars as Charles Wesley and Rayford W. Logan had done, spend his career in a separate academic world in which the pinnacle of success would be a professorship at Howard or Fisk. After teaching at St. Augustine College and North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central) at Durham, Franklin made it to Howard in 1947. But in 1956, two years after Brown v. the Board of Education had opened the era of educational integration, he accepted a position as the chairman of the department of history at Brooklyn College.

It may be significant that he only made the move to the predominantly white academic world when he could come in as a chairman of the department and a full professor. Although committed to integration, he may have been leery of the kind of integration that put blacks in subservient positions and forced them to meet the expectations of white superiors. During the Second World War, he had sought to enlist for service as a military historian, a job readily available to white Ph.D.’s in history. When apparent racial discrimination denied him the chance to contribute to the war effort in his own fashion and revealed that his only option was to serve in a segregated army, he decided to try to avoid service and succeeded in doing so. In all his reminiscences, one has the impression of a sensitive, proud, and fiercely independent man who was not going to conform to other people’s expectations of him if they conflicted with the goals he had chosen for himself.

At a time when it is fashionable for academic theorists to question the idea that there is an objective truth or any set of facts that exist independently of our social and linguistic constructions, it is almost startling to read Franklin’s strong affirmation of traditional scholarly standards of evidence. The current notion that all scholarship is political and that the historian can be as passionate and polemical as he wants on behalf of a worthy cause and need not worry about some criterion of objectivity is wholly alien to Franklin’s way of thinking. In “The Dilemma of the Negro Scholar,” his memorable essay of 1963, he described the problems that he faced at the height of the civil rights movement in remaining faithful both to his deep political commitments and to his equally strong sense of professional responsibility. The black scholar, he wrote, must “remain true to the rigid requirements of equanimity, dispassion, and objectivity…. He must pursue truth in his own field.”

But in the face of forces that deny him membership in the mainstream of American scholarship and suggest that he is unable to perform creditably, the task of remaining calm and objective is indeed a formidable one. There is always the temptation to pollute his scholarship with polemics, diatribes, arguments. This is especially true if the area of his interests touches on the great questions in which he is personally involved as a Negro. If he yields to this attractive temptation, he can by one act destroy his effectiveness and disqualify himself as a true and worthy scholar. He should know that by maintaining the highest standards of scholarship he not only becomes worthy but also sets an example worthy but also sets an example that many of his contemporaries who claim to be the arbiters in the field do not themselves follow.

  1. 1

    The Free Negro in North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 1943).

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