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Remembering John Hope Franklin, OAH’s first Black president

The 2024 OAH Conference on American History begins in New Orleans on 11 April, almost exactly fifteen years after the death of the organization’s first Black president, John Hope Franklin. Franklin’s life embodied the conference theme of “being in service to communities and the nation,” and the annual meeting offers an opportunity to reflect on his extraordinary body of work and how it speaks to the present moment.

Franklin’s seven-decade career defies overstatement. He earned his PhD from Harvard in 1941, marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, became the president of the OAH in 1975, was named by President Bill Clinton to lead the Advisory Board to the President’s Initiative on Race in 1997, and, in 2006, won the John Kluge Prize from the Library of Congress for lifetime achievement in the humanities. He published over two dozen books and 100 articles. His influence as a teacher and mentor is incalculable.

Franklin came to prominence in the middle years of the twentieth century, and his work during this period, both inside and outside of the academy, continues to resonate as the history profession confronts right-wing attacks on the teaching and study of Black history. In 1947, he published his third book, From Slavery to Freedom, which placed African Americans at the center of a story so long dominated by white figures. Like W. E. B. Du Bois, Rayford Logan, and other pioneering Black scholars before him, Franklin emphasized what serious historians came to accept as an essential fact: Black history is American history. From Slavery to Freedom revolutionized the field; as historian Paul Finkelman writes in his essay on Franklin for the American National Biography, the book “[made] it possible for African American history to be taught outside of historically black colleges and universities.” It would go on to sell over three million copies across nine editions and remains in print today.

A year later, Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund asked Franklin to serve as an expert witness in the case of Johnson v. Board of Trustees of Kentucky, in which African American student Lyman T. Johnson sought to enter the graduate program in history of the University of Kentucky, which only admitted white students. Franklin, with the help of sympathetic white professors at UK, mined official records and showed that the designated Black school, Kentucky State College, did not offer a comparable education. In 1949, the US District Court ruled that Johnson must be allowed to enter the University of Kentucky. In 1998, the university gave Franklin an honorary doctorate.

Marshall called Franklin again in 1953. By this point, the NAACP had won significant victories in Supreme Court cases that eliminated “separate but equal” in graduate and professional programs. Marshall and key NAACP lawyers, including Constance Baker Motley, were readying cases that would force the Court to rule on segregation in primary and secondary schools. He asked Franklin to conduct research on the Fourteenth Amendment to bolster the argument that school segregation was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause. “As only Thurgood Marshall could put it,” Franklin recalled in a 2007 interview with historian Ray Arsenault, “he threatened me in a way that I knew that I was going to be in danger if I didn’t accept his invitation or his command.” Franklin arranged his fall schedule so that he could teach at Howard University Monday through Wednesday morning and then travel to New York to work with the NAACP through the weekend.

The NAACP won the case that became Brown v. Board of Education, but Franklin was “bitterly mistaken, tragically mistaken” in thinking that the Supreme Court’s ruling would force southern officials to integrate schools right away, or, as the Court so vaguely put it the following year, “with all deliberate speed.” Franklin also knew that segregation was not an issue peculiar to the South. Franklin had studied the problem as an historian, but he also had first-hand experience. He moved to New York City in 1956 to chair the history department at Brooklyn College, but he struggled to find a home within walking distance to the school; realtors refused to show him houses because of his race, insurance companies balked at working with him, and banks refused to approve his loan. When he eventually bought a house—thanks to his lawyer’s father being on the board of a bank—he and his family faced constant harassment from white neighbors. The continuous struggle against racial discrimination, past and present, would motivate Franklin’s work for the rest of his life.

Franklin died on 25 March 2009, not three months after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the country’s first Black president. Bill Clinton spoke at his memorial service. In 2015, at Duke University’s celebration of Franklin’s centennial, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust mused, “For John Hope Franklin, history was a calling and a weapon, a passion and a project.” He understood “history itself as a causal agent and on the writing of history as mission as well as profession.” The OAH conference reminds us to consider Franklin’s legacy. It also allows us to celebrate how historians today have followed in his footsteps, untangling America’s past through honest research and skilled interpretation even as politicians and opinionmakers undermine the teaching of race, slavery, and the diversity of American experiences.

Feature image by World Maps via StockSnap, CC1.0.

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