Drew Gilpin Faust is the President and the Lincoln Professor of History at Harvard. She is the author, most recently, of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Her essay in this issue is drawn from a speech she delivered in November at Duke to commemorate the one-hundredth birthday of the late historian John Hope Franklin. (December 2015)
Many Americans in 2015 seem to be undertaking an unprecedentedly clear-eyed look at the nation’s past, at the legacy of slavery and race that has made us anything but a colorblind society. There could be no more fitting tribute to John Hope Franklin’s one hundredth birthday than this collective stock-taking, for no one has done more to delineate the contours of that shameful legacy and to insist upon its importance to America’s present and future.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, our understanding of the American past has been revolutionized, in no small part because of our altered conceptions of the place of race in the nation’s history. And that revolution has taken place largely because of a remarkable generation of historians who, inspired by the changing meanings of freedom and justice in their own time, began to ask new questions about the origins of the racial inequality that continued to permeate our segregated society nearly a century after slavery’s end.