(Harry Lynch/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)
RALEIGH, N.C. - John Hope Franklin, the revered historian who chronicled the South and gave definition to the African-American experience, died Wednesday at the age of 94.
Franklin died of congestive heart failure at Duke Hospital.
Franklin was considered one of the most influential historians of the 20th century. His book “From Slavery to Freedom,” first published in 1947, was a seminal work on African-American history and has sold 3.5 million copies.
His scholarship helped ensure that no American history book could be complete without the story of African-Americans, and that America had to confront the reality of slavery and segregation in its past.
He was at the forefront of some of the biggest turning points in the nation’s civil rights history. In 1953, he helped NAACP lawyers with research for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case. In 1965, he joined a group of historians who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery. Five decades after his masterpiece was published, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997 to lead a national initiative on race.
“He writes history, and he is history,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard professor and an authority on African and African-American history, in an interview earlier this year in which he referred to Franklin as his “intellectual godfather.”
“Franklin lived for nearly a century and helped define that century,” said Duke President Richard H. Brodhead. “A towering historian, he led the recognition that African-American history and American history are one. With his grasp of the past, he spent a lifetime building a future of inclusiveness, fairness and equality.”
Though Franklin earned a doctorate from Harvard and eventually more than 100 honorary degrees, his celebrated life was peppered with racial discrimination and the subtle humiliation of segregation.
At 12, he rushed to help a blind white woman cross the street in Tulsa, until she commanded him to take his “filthy hands off her” after realizing he was black. As a college student, he gave a $20 dollar bill to a streetcar worker and asked for change, prompting the man to hurl a racial slur and count out $19.85 in dimes and nickels. As a young scholar, Franklin toiled on his research at the state archives in Raleigh, where he was confined to a tiny room across from the whites-only research room.
Franklin would not be deterred.
“I hardly needed to seek a way to confront American racial injustice,” he wrote in his 2005 memoir “Mirror to America.” “My ambition was sufficient to guarantee that confrontation.”
He is survived by his son, John Whittington Franklin, daughter-in-law Karen Roberts Franklin, sister-in-law Bertha W. Gibbs, cousin Grant Franklin Sr., a host of nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews, other family members, many generations of students and friends.
There will be a celebration of his life and of his late wife Aurelia Franklin at 11 a.m. June 11 in Duke Chapel in honor of their 69th wedding anniversary.