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Historian Helped Americans Rethink Critical Period in Nation's History


Historian John Hope Franklin died Wednesday in North Carolina at the age of 94. Through his work, the distinguished scholar and pioneer of African-American studies helped Americans rediscover, and rethink, a critical chapter of the nation's history.

So profound has been Franklin's influence on the prism of American history that in 1995 he was awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"John Hope Franklin, the son of the South, has always been a moral compass for America - always pointing us in the direction of truth," said President Bill Clinton.

In 1921, as a 6-year-old boy in an impoverished, all-black Oklahoma town, Franklin, the grandson of a slave, watched in terror as white rioters torched African-American neighborhoods in nearby Tulsa and burned his father's law office to the ground.

But he would carry not bitterness or hatred into adulthood - rather, determination to learn, to excel, and to illuminate the full and true story of his people. He did so well at historically black Fisk College in Nashville, Tennessee, that he was admitted to graduate school at the acclaimed Harvard University. But the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression. Neither he nor his family could afford the tuition that Harvard demanded. These were agonizing moments until his mentor, a Fisk history professor, intervened.

"Young white man - I was 20 years old; he was 32 - went downtown and borrowed $500 and put it in my hand and said, 'Money will not keep you out of Harvard.' And he sent me off to Harvard the next day," Franklin recalled. "Well, if that was a low point, it was also a high point, too, for I was back on track."

On track to one day write the most acclaimed account of the enslavement of African-Americans in the Old South. The book, From Slavery to Freedom, would sell more than three million copies. This "revisionist history," as it's often called, shattered the image of complacent, dim-witted slaves. It described slave rebellions and little-known achievements of free black men and women - even in the hateful South. And it exposed a darker side of American heroes like Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder who wrote the Declaration of Independence.

"He wrote in 1776 that 'all men are created equal,'" Franklin said. "In 1782, he said that there are so many who are not equal in so many ways - that blacks could not reason the way white people could. He said that black people smelled. You get that written into the very spirit of the country."

"Make way for the historians," freedom marchers cried out in 1965 as they marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital.

It was Franklin whose research at the Library of Congress had helped civil-rights lawyers convince the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw segregation in the nation's public schools a decade earlier. It was he and other historians who were escorted to the head of that voting-rights march in the midst of an angry crowd.

"I knew of the enormous resistance. There were large numbers of people who would die rather than give equality to blacks. To be very frank, I was frightened out of my wits," Franklin told a reporter.

"Where does this depth of hatred of black people come from?" the reporter asked.

"It's a part of the rationalization or justification for slavery. You can't enslave your equals. So you've got to make your equals into something else - make them appear to be inferior and appear to deserve enslavement," Franklin replied.

Franklin would teach history at several institutions, including Brooklyn College in New York, where he arrived as department chairman to find that all 52 people reporting to him were white.

"I had to remind myself that they were not like me in appearance. But so far as their human qualities were concerned, they could be just as I was. I could be just as they were."

Historians write about the legacies of great women and men. Franklin, who calls himself an "inveterate optimist," admits to giving some thought to the legacy of his own long and fruitful life.

"I taught for nearly 70 years. And I would like my students to take up where I left off and to carry on the fight to establish history as a powerful force for good - a constructive force to rectify the ills of our society-- to change the world, as it were."

Franklin rejected the label "black historian" - insisting instead that he was an historian whose writing about all Americans has given substance to the black experience. In the same vein, he took some issue with the current national practice of setting aside a single month, February, as "black history month." Blacks, said John Hope Franklin, are part of American history every month of every year.

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