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'Revisionist' Historian Franklin Gets America Thinking About Role of African Americans

John Hope Franklin helped Americans rediscover, and rethink, some critical chapters in their nation's history. The 92-year-old historian's influence on the prism of American history has been so profound that in 1995 he was awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, when Bill Clinton presented him with 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," President Clinton told the audience. "'I look history straight in the eye and call it like it is,' John Hope Franklin has said: telling the untold stories of northern racism and the sinful confines of slavery."

In 1921, as a boy of six in an impoverished, all-black Oklahoma town, John Hope 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, but 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 grips 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.

"He was a young white man," Franklin recalls. "I was 20 years old; he was 32. He 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. 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, grateful that their masters gave them food and shelter. It described slave rebellions and little-known achievements of free black men and women, even in the hateful South at the height of the Civil War. 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 notes. "In 1782 he wrote 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."

It was John Hope Franklin whose research at the Library of Congress helped civil-rights lawyers convince the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw segregation in the nation's schools. A decade later, in 1965, it was he and other historians who were escorted to the head of that voting-rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery, in the midst of an angry crowd.

"I knew of the enormous resistance." Franklin remembers. "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."

Where does this depth of hatred of black people come from?

"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."

John Hope 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," he says. "But so far as their human qualities were concerned, they could be just as I was. I could be just as they were."

Last year, the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, presented the prestigious Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement -- and a check for $500,000 -- to John Hope Franklin. Said Billington, "For the broader public, the long and complex history of race in this country has been opened up over the course of 63 years by this amazing man."

Historians write about the legacies of great women and men. John Hope 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," he says. "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."

Just as he rejects the label "black historian," insisting instead that he is a historian whose writing about all Americans has given substance to the black experience, John Hope Franklin takes some issue with the current national practice of setting aside a single month, February, as "Black History Month." Blacks, he says, are part of American history every month of every year.

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