The Life of John Hope Franklin

John Hope Franklin, 94
Author and Historian

Born into a world of segregation and a history of race written by whites, Franklin made himself into a great public intellectual— a bespoke black historian who put African-Americans on even ground in the national story. His research during Brown v. Board of Education helped desegregate the nation's schools, while his bestselling work "From Slavery to Freedom," now in its eighth edition, forever muscled aside racist portrayals of the black South. A graduate of Fisk and Harvard universities, he won enough honors for two lifetimes, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in Durham, N.C., where he was a distinguished professor at Duke. David Levering-Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian whom Franklin mentored, shared these memories with NEWSWEEK's Tony Dokoupil:

I heard about John long before I met him. As an undergraduate at Fisk, in fact, it was impossible not to hear about the great "John Hope," as he was universally known. At beer- and cigarette-soaked gatherings of the history department, his old mentor Theodore Currier would say, "You know"—cue a long, contemplative drag—"there really is no glass ceiling for people who are good." Which would launch a mini-lecture on John's many virtues, the biggest of which was apparently that he chose history over law. Currier was so pleased that he took out a $500 loan—big bucks in 1935—to help John pay for Harvard.

I first met John a few years later, after I had dropped out of Michigan law school, hopped a bus to New York and talked my way into Columbia's history department. There I saw a front-page headline in The New York Times: NEGRO EDUCATOR TO HEAD DEPARTMENT IN BROOKLYN COLLEGE. It was John, of course. Such were the state of race relations that the first black man to chair a white history department was a breakthrough treated like Jackie Robinson's contract with the Dodgers. Inspired, I called Brooklyn College to request a sit-down with Dr. Franklin. To my surprise, he accepted. While I can't recall what we discussed, I remember his personal ease. He was classy without being ostentatious, a natural raconteur with an English air. Were his suits tailored? I don't know, but they gave him a certain courtliness. He moved with surety and grace.

But no matter how famous he became—the head of Clinton's Initiative on Race, winner of the Kluge Prize, the Nobel of the humanities—mentoring remained a mission for him. He once cut short a meeting with the president of the University of Chicago to have Chinese food with me and other young historians.

And in letters we exchanged over the decades, he was ever the prudent senior historian giving me the lay of the land—often saving me trouble in the process. He knew all too well about racism in the academy, recalling once that a reviewer at The Harvard Press had told the publisher, "I don't know why you'd want a review of the South written by a Negro, but if you do, John Hope Franklin is probably your best bet." And yet, when I came to him with my own complaints, he often cautioned me to see the other side, which of course is what good historians do. I gave the toast at John's 80th-birthday gala at Duke. Afterward, we found each other in the crowd, and he joked, "Let's take this show on the road." Now I only wish we could.