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.
This austere professionalism is the key to John Hope Franklin’s genuine achievements and it goes a long way toward explaining why he has not been more visible or influential in recent American historical thought. He has in fact rarely wavered from a commitment to “equanimity, dispassion, and objectivity” in his scholarly work, and it is this that gives his work a special kind of authority. If one wants to know the “facts” of African American history, one turns to Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. 2 If one wants to learn what is known about militaristic values and practices in the Old South or about southern travelers in the antebellum North, one turns to Franklin’s definitive works on those subjects.3 What one does not find is “polemics, diatribes, arguments” or, for that matter, theories, hypotheses, or speculative interpretations that are controversial precisely because they cannot be verified by the facts at hand. More often than not, however, it is just such expressions of passion and imagination that cause historical works to be noticed and discussed. For better or worse, large historical reputations are generally built on a willingness to go beyond the facts in order to make a provocative argument that is somehow relevant to contemporary political or cultural concerns. Few well-known historians practice the restraint that Franklin exemplifies, or maintain his strict commitment to objectivity.
Some historians of course write without passion—and thus seem detached and reliable—because they have no strong feelings about the subject they are investigating. Franklin, as the passage here quoted clearly shows, feels deeply about racial injustice. On occasion, he expresses himself with intensity on the subject, but he usually makes it clear that he has taken off his historian’s hat and is “blowing off steam in literary efforts.” He refers to an essay he wrote during the Jim Crow era in the South, comparing black travelers on southern trains with refugees in German occupied countries during World War II. But he has chosen not to include this piece in his collected essays. He also recalls that in a working paper that he wrote for the NAACP’s brief in Brown v. the Board of Education he “had deliberately transformed the objective data provided by historical research into an urgent plea for justice,” hoping that his “scholarship did not suffer” as a result.
Ultimately, however, there is no conflict in his mind between sound scholarship and social responsibility. Reliable information accompanied by rational, dispassionate analysis is in fact the most valuable contribution that the scholar, as such, can make to the cause of black liberation. In the 1963 essay he concluded that “the proper choice for the American Negro scholar is to use his knowledge and ingenuity, his resources and talents, to combat the forces that isolate him and his people and, like the true patriot that he is, to contribute to the solution of the problems that all Americans face in common.”
Franklin’s most recent book, published a full thirty years after the essay “The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar,” is a reflection on the current state and future prospects for race relations in the United States. It expresses more anger than almost anything else he has written, showing that it has been harder than ever for him to maintain dispassion and equanimity in the age of Reagan and Bush. Perhaps he is once again writing as a public advocate and is not professing history at all. Since the book is based on lectures meant to “develop the science of ethics,” Franklin is freer to render moral judgments than he feels licensed to do in strictly historical works. But his argument is deeply informed by historical knowledge and perspective, which is precisely what makes it such a devastating critique of current racial policies. The theme of the book is “the color line,” and its text is W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous pronouncement of 1903 that “the problem of the twentieth century will be the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men.” Franklin reviews the racial policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations and concludes that the color line is still in place and is likely to be the critical problem of the twenty-first century as well.
The great illusion that stands in the way of further progress toward a colorblind society, according to Franklin, is the assumption that we have already achieved it. “Unfortunately,” he notes, “the litigation, legislation, and executive implementation, however effective some of it was, did not wipe away three centuries of slavery, segregation, and discrimination.” But “untold millions of Americans” concluded on the basis of the legal and legislative breakthroughs of the civil rights era that the problem was solved: “Thus, they reasoned, now that African Americans enjoyed equal protection of the laws, they needed no special protection of the laws.” The result was to block the kind of policies, such as effective affirmative action, that might contribute to the achievement of a genuinely color-blind society.
Neither the courts nor the Congress nor the president can declare by fiat, resolution, or executive order that the United States is a color-blind society. They can only facilitate a movement in that direction by discharging their duties in a way that reflects their commitment to such a goal. From that point on, it is the people of all colors who must work in every way possible to attain that goal. Those who insist that we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.
In short, one might conclude, a new kind of American racism takes the form of a denial that racism continues to be a problem in American society. That an overtly color-blind ideology affirming legal and political equality, while blacks remain mired in a state of social and economic inferiority, can itself be a form of racism is a notion that most white Americans find very difficult to accept; but it is self-evident to Franklin, an eminently reasonable man who does not jump to conclusions or feel the need to engage in militant rhetoric. Clearly, there is great disagreement between white and black America on the question of how much progress has been made in race relations. Little further progress can be made until white Americans hear what Franklin is saying and recognize its validity.
It would be condescending, if not unjust, to limit a discussion of Franklin’s life and work to showing how his career exemplifies the problems and virtually inescapable public commitments of the black scholar. The seriousness with which he takes his vocation as a professional historian invites a further effort to assess his importance in American historical scholarship. As Franklin shows, especially in his 1979 essay on D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation he firmly believes that there is a clear and critical distinction between historical propaganda and historical scholarship. True historians seek the truth and let the chips fall where they may; propagandists claiming to be historians “have sought out those historical episodes that support some contemporary axe they have to grind” or “look for ways to justify the social and public policy that they and like-minded persons advocate.”
For Franklin, “the effort to reconstruct what actually happened in an earlier era demands an honesty and integrity that elevate the study of history to a noble enterprise.” It follows that historical knowledge is to some degree progressive. One generation does not simply make up a past of its own that is no better than the one fashioned by its predecessors; it also adds to what is definitely known. These propositions, once accepted by most working historians in theory, if not necessarily in practice, are now controversial. Postmodern theorists have questioned the existence of a reality or set of objective facts external to the historian’s “discourse” against which its truthfulness can be measured. In short, history is increasingly viewed as a form of fiction. Although difficult philosophical problems undoubtedly arise over the criteria of historical truth, the practice of history as a scholarly discipline and its usefulness as a source of wisdom or a guide to action depend, in my view, on an acceptance of Franklin’s principles as necessary conventions or pragmatic truths, if not as absolutes. If we cannot prove that the Holocaust revisionists are wrong in some inarguable way, we are clearly in deep trouble.
John Hope Franklin’s most important contribution to the growth of historical knowledge and the reconsideration of the American past undoubtedly derives from his writings on Reconstruction. He had a major part in the “revisionist” effort to refute the pro-Southern and essentially racist view of the immediate post—Civil War era that dominated American historical consciousness from the turn of the century until the 1960s (and beyond if we are thinking abut popular historical mythology). Franklin was in some ways preeminent among those who challenged the venerable stereotypes of ignorant, unintelligent former slaves being induced by corrupt carpet-baggers and scalawags (“disloyal” southern whites) to insult and oppress the decent white people of Dixie to the point where they were forced to use violence to preserve “civilization.”
Franklin may not have received the credit that he deserves for this achievement. His method, as might be expected, has been to discredit the older historiography for its partisanship or lack of objectivity. In a 1948 review essay republished in Race and History, he demolished E. Merton Coulter’s The South During Reconstruction by demonstrating in painstaking fashion that Coulter had used his evidence selectively, made generalizations that his evidence would not support, misquoted or distorted some of the sources that he did use, and had been “injudicious” in his lurid and obviously biased descriptions of the performance of black voters and office holders.4 (Anyone who believes that there are no objective standards to determine the reliability of historical accounts should try to defend Coulter against the kind of attack that Franklin mounts.)
Franklin went on to write his own short history of the period, Reconstruction After the Civil War, published in 1961.5 This was the first synthesis of the revisionist scholarship on Reconstruction and should have made Franklin the acknowledged leader among Reconstruction historians. But here, I suspect, Franklin’s integrity and commitment to objectivity got in the way. Trying to supply the “judiciousness” that Coulter lacked, he refrained from overstating the positive aspects of Reconstruction or simply reversing the heroes and villains of the older historiography. Carpetbaggers and scalawags were in Franklin’s account a diverse lot about whose virtues and vices it was difficult to generalize. He exonerated the African American freedmen from the extreme charges of incompetence and immorality that had characterized the older historiography. But he conceded that most of the ex-slaves “were without the qualifications to participate effectively in a democracy”—although in this respect, he noted tellingly, they were little different from the enfranchised recent immigrants of the northern cities.6 The political role of the freedmen was in fact modest. Since no southern state governments were actually under black control, African Americans had only a limited responsibility for what happened. Black political leadership he described as moderate and conciliatory rather than radical and militant. The black leaders were primarily interested in formal citizens’ rights and educational opportunities rather than redirecting wealth or the guarantee of “social equality” through the elimination of all forms of racial segregation.
While far less negative than the accounts of previous historians, Franklin’s view of the black role in Reconstruction had relatively little of the heroic about it. His work was not seen as offering a perfect model for black civil rights protesters of the 1960s. Subsequent writers on Reconstruction had a greater dramatic effect and somewhat obscured Franklin’s earlier achievement by promoting a new Reconstruction myth. The events of the 1860s and 1870s were now presented as a kind of dress rehearsal for those of a century later, with blacks and some of their white allies acting as modern freedom fighters. Whether these Reconstruction freedom fighters had integrationist or black nationalist tendencies depended on the ideological predilections of the historian.
Fortunately, Franklin’s central contribution to the modern reconsideration of Reconstruction should become clear to anyone who reads The Facts of Reconstruction, a collection of essays in his honor by those among his students who have worked on Reconstruction, as well as two other scholars who have been influenced by his work. The title is significant; it reflects Franklin’s faith that careful and precise historical investigation can establish what actually happened apart from any gloss that the historian might wish to put on it. Each contributor takes a single aspect of Reconstruction and uses as a point of departure Franklin’s treatment of it. Reconstruction After the Civil War is described by the editors as “the first comprehensive response to William A. Dunning’s Reconstruction, Political and Economic,” which was the central text of the pro-southern traditionalists. All of the essays reflect Franklin’s own historical methods: they sift the facts in order to arrive at the truth with a minimum of ax-grinding. I was particularly impressed by Michael Les Benedict’s essay on “Reform Republicans and the Retreat from Reconstruction” and Michael Perman’s on “Counter Reconstruction: The Role of Violence in Southern Redemption”; but all of the pieces are of high quality.
The contributors sometimes review the work of the master by uncovering new facts that require modifying his conclusions, but Michael Perman, one of Franklin’s most accomplished students, finds that the emphasis Franklin put on white violence against blacks in the overthrow of Reconstruction is more worthy of respect than subsequent historical accounts concentrating on the internal weaknesses of the Southern Republican party have led us to believe. In general, the essayists convey the impression that Franklin’s book on Reconstruction has stood up remarkably well for a work published more than thirty years ago, a vindication of Franklin’s unwillingness to subordinate “the facts” to the ideological needs of the hour. The general accounts of Reconstruction written during the civil rights era are now likely to seem more dated or timebound than Franklin’s study. The “postrevisionism” of the 1970s and 1980s often reached conclusions similar to Franklin’s—for example, about the limits of Reconstruction radicalism—but (too often) without acknowledging his work as precedent.
John Hope Franklin is a historian’s historian, a scholar who has stuck to the ideal of a historical truth beyond ideology and done so more effectively than many whose political passions were weaker than his but whose work nevertheless suffered more from distortions resulting from partisanship of one kind or another. Refusing to endorse fashionable theories and ideologies, he has attempted to leave a legacy of reliable, truthful history. At the same time, he has clearly suffered deeply from the pain of racial discrimination and defamation. In his strictly historical works, he has contained his anger and frustration in an almost heroic fashion. When such a man tells us forthrightly, as he does in The Color Line, that race relations in the United States have reached an abysmal state and that the successful conservative movement of the recent past is largely responsible for perpetuating and even deepening the color line, the time has come to give up illusions of inevitable progress toward racial equality and realize that vigorous new actions and initiatives are required.
But Franklin’s message for historians of black America, of the South, and of race relations is that they will betray their callings and be less than useful to future generations if they devote their scholarship—as distinguished from the valuable contributions they might make to the current debate on race by speaking out as well-informed citizens—entirely to the immediate task of discrediting the new racists. The path that John Hope Franklin proposes for historians may be extremely difficult to follow, but his own example reveals that it can be done.
September 23, 1993
The Free Negro in North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 1943). ↩
Knopf, sixth edition, 1987. ↩
The Militant South, 1800–1860 (Harvard University Press, 1956); A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North (Louisiana State University Press, 1976) ↩
Louisiana State University Press, 1948. Coulter’s volume continues to cover Reconstruction in LSU Press’s Southern History series. ↩
University of Chicago Press, as a contribution to the Chicago History of American Civilization. ↩
Reconstruction After the Civil War, pp. 86–87. ↩