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Ira Katznelson and Troy Duster pay tribute to John Hope Franklin

From Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University, and SSRC Board Member:

I knew John Hope Franklin only a little, but that little was a great privilege. He was my neighbor, on Blackstone Avenue near 58th Street, when he was my colleague at the University of Chicago. He was, by some measure, my most courtly neighbor, known primarily on our street by the non-academics as the slightly eccentric cultivator of orchids. But like those rare and pleasing flowers, he transformed sensibilities of beauty; in his case, what might be called historical beauty. Of course he wrote about difficult matters, some very personal to him. But in doing so he restored history to its own special beauty—the quest for a truth that refuses neglect and indifference.

My own interest in race in the United States was first encouraged when, as an undergraduate, I read Professor Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom. Riveting and disturbing, it was, for my generation, a book that could not be ignored. It demanded attention in the way of its author—quiet, thoughtful, and steady, but insistent, a book that changed how the United States would be seen, experienced, and understood. His haunting autobiography, Mirror to America, published three years ago as he reached ninety, teaches how social knowledge can map and constrain adversity, letting flowers grow even in the toughest of environments.

From Troy Duster, Professor of Sociology, New York University, and former SSRC Board Member:

When I was growing up as a teenager in Chicago, I often heard my mother, Alfreda Barnett Duster, say that she was working on an important manuscript, typing well in to the night on one of those now ancient manual Royal typewriters—when "cc" was an actual carbon copy. She was piecing together some out-of-order fragments of the handwritten autobiography left to her by her mother. I was aware that my grandmother had been a well-known public figure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—but for the general public, her story was “buried” by the 1950s. Except on the Southside of Chicago where a public housing project was named for her, she was all but forgotten, completely absent from U.S. history books.

Between 1949 and 1965, my mother had approached at least fifteen different publishing houses to see if any had any interest in the manuscript. She had absolutely no success. Rejection after rejection did not dissuade her, and she kept insisting that someday, someone with a keen eye would see the value.

Then just at what must have been the height of her frustration, a ray of light flashed off the pages of the alumni magazine of the University of Chicago. (My mother had attended the U. of Chicago as an undergraduate back in the days in which she had been one of only a half dozen Blacks on campus, in the days in which she was not permitted to swim in the pool—but I digress.) Her alma mater had just hired John Hope Franklin, the noted historian, and had appointed him editor of a new monograph series on African Americans. She made an appointment to see the new editor, the carbon copy tucked in her briefcase. It took Franklin a nanosecond to understand what was in his hands, and within a remarkably short period, he authorized a contract to publish the autobiography. The rest, as they say, is history.

It was Crusade for Justice (The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells) that became the basis of Bill Greaves' widely acclaimed PBS documentary on the life of Wells, which first aired in 1989. It was Crusade for Justice that has served as the core document for eight subsequent biographies of Wells, the most recent being the magnificent and definitive 2008 publication of Ida: A Sword Among Lions, by Paula Giddings. It is no exaggeration to say that it was John Hope Franklin’s decision that re-opened the nation to the story of Wells’ legacy of the anti-lynching crusade.

Compiled and edited by Mary-Lea Cox.

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Who he was: Major U.S. historian and a pioneer in the field of African American studies.

Landmark work: From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, coauthored with Alfred A. Moss, Jr., first published in 1947.

How he transformed knowledge: He created a paradigm shift in the way the American narrative was studied—to include not only African Americans but also women, gays, Hispanics, Asians and others.

Relationship to the SSRC: He was a recipient of an SSRC fellowship in the early part of his career. Then, from 1956 to 1961, he served on the SSRC's long-running Grants-in-Aid Committee, in charge of giving small grants-in-aid of research to mature scholars of established competence who did not have access to adequate funds for research. In more recent times, he was a speaker for our Mellon Mays Program (see photo below).

How he reacted to the news of Barack Obama’s nomination: “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime. It’s an indication of the willingness as well as the ability of this country to turn a significant corner toward full political equality.”

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John Hope Franklin conversing with students of the SSRC-Mellon Mays (then Mellon Minority) Program after he delivered remarks at their Graduate Student Summer Conference at Duke University, June 2001.

Published on: Friday, May 08, 2009