Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938–1988
The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-First Century
The Facts of Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of John Hope Franklin
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…
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