John Hope Franklin

John Hope Franklin Biography

Historian, Journalist (1915–2009)
John Hope Franklin was a highly esteemed historian and author, known for his scholarship that focused on Southern history and racial politics.


Born on January 2, 1915, in Rentiesville, Oklahoma, John Hope Franklin earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University before embarking on a career as one of the most renowned historians of his time. Franklin released his groundbreaking From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans in 1947, with many other titles to follow. He was also an academic leader and civil rights activist. He died on March 25, 2009, in Durham, North Carolina.

Background and Education

John Hope Franklin was born on January 2, 1915, in Rentiesville, Oklahoma. His mother was a schoolteacher, and Franklin leaned to read and write at an early age sitting in on her classes. He went on to attend Fisk University, with the intention of following in his father's footsteps and studying law, but instead turned to history, being mentored by Theodore S. Currier.

Franklin eventually attended Harvard University, initially earning his master's and later his doctorate in 1941. He, like his parents, faced a number of racist, segregation-based obstacles, yet remained determined to pursue his career interests. He wed Aurelia E. Whittington in 1940, with the couple going on to have a son.

'From Slavery to Freedom'

In 1947, with Alfred A. Knopf's publishing house, Franklin released From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, a seminal text on black history that would become globally distributed, selling millions of copies. It is credited as paving the way for the creation of African-American studies as a discipline, while Franklin has maintained that he has always been a historian of the South as opposed to solely dealing with race.

Franklin started teaching at alma mater Fisk in the mid-1930s and went on to hold faculty positions at a number of institutions, including Harvard, Howard University, New York University, Cambridge University, and Duke University Law School. Among an array of firsts, he became chair of Brooklyn College's history department in 1956, thus making him the first black scholar to be appointed department head at a mostly white college. He was also the first African-American leader of the American Historical Association.

Civil Rights Activist

Franklin was highly active in the Civil Rights Movement as well, though taking care to separate his activism from his objectivity as a historian. He worked with landmark cases like Lyman Johnson v. The University of Kentucky and Brown v. The Board of Education, and participated in the 1965 voting rights march that started in Selma, Alabama.

Books and Legacy

A prolific author, Franklin wrote many other books as well, including The Militant South: 1800-1806 (1956), The Emancipation Proclamation (1963), Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (1999), co-penned with Loren Schweninger, and his 2005 autobiography, Mirror to America.

Franklin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1995, among his more than 100 honorary degrees and additional accolades. In his later years he was appointed professor emeritus at Duke, with a building dedicated to him, and he continued to write and study.

John Hope Franklin died in Durham, North Carolina, on March 25, 2009, at the age of 94, leaving a legacy of ideas shared around the world.

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