Tuesday, March 31, 2009

John Hope Franklin: An American historian

By DeWayne Wickham

John Hope Franklin, who died last week at age 94, had already reached the emeritus status of his illustrious career when our paths first crossed.

It was during an April 1999 reception at Duke University that I met Franklin, who along with Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison, dominated the room that night like a couple of California Redwoods in a pygmy tree forest. It was the eve of the new millennium and the school’s African and African American Studies program had invited a group of black intellectuals and journalists to campus to talk about race in the 21st century.

In its obituary, The New York Times called Franklin a “prolific scholar of African American history.” He was much more than that. In writing about and teaching largely the history of blacks in this country, during a career that spanned nearly three quarters of a century, Franklin was essentially a scholar of American history.

His works chronicled the intersection of black and white life in this country in ways that far too many historians ignore. Any college graduate who has not read “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans” – a book that was first published in 1947 and is now in its 7th edition – probably has a gaping hole in their understanding of this nation.

That book is the demarcation line between the marginalization and acceptance of the serious study of the role of blacks in the life of this country by American historians. “It has been necessary…to a considerable extent, to retell the story of the evolution of the people of the United States in order to place the Negro in his proper relationship and perspective,” Franklin wrote in the preface to the book’s first edition.

Putting the relationship between blacks and whites into the proper perspective was the life’s work of Franklin.

He did it not only through his outstanding scholarship, but also with his public service. President Kennedy chose Franklin to serve on the Board of Foreign Scholarships; President Ford appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities, and President Carter placed him on the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. In 1997, President Clinton picked Franklin to chair his “Initiative on Race,” an effort to address the racial issues that continued to plague the nation. Two years earlier, Clinton gave Franklin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award.

But his most rewarding honor may have come from his work as an advisor to an Oklahoma commission that was created to study the causes of the 1921 Tulsa race riot. Franklin was 6 years old when his father, Buck Franklin, moved to Tulsa from Rentiesville, Okla., to set up a law practice. Before his dad earned enough money to send for his family to join him, a race riot erupted in Tulsa on May 31, 1921.

By the time the violence ended a couple days later, nearly 40 blocks of Tulsa’s black community. Virtually all of the city’s black business district was destroyed. According to several accounts, airplanes were used to rain bullets and some improvised explosives down on Tulsa’s black community.

Several days passed before Franklin’s family got word that his father was safe and unharmed by the rioting, which took scores of lives – most of them black – when white mobs descended upon the city’s black neighborhood.

If all goes as planned, the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park will open in Tulsa this summer. Such a park, in a place where a horrific race riot occurred, is a fitting tribute to the life and work of a great American historian.

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