Saturday, January 2, 2016

John Hope Franklin (1915-2009), historian and educator, was born 101 years ago today in Rentiesville, Oklahoma. Educated at Fisk University and Harvard University, he taught for many years at Howard University, the University of Chicago, and Duke University.

His many books and articles—most notably From Slavery to Freedom, first published in 1947, which has sold more than three million copies; the most recent edition, the ninth, with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham as co-author, is widely used as a college and university textbook—are all well worth reading.  Begin with From Slavery to Freedom but also consider The Militant South (1960); Reconstruction after the Civil War (1961); George Washington Williams: A Biography (1995), on Williams (1849-1891), the dean of African-American historians; and his autobiography Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (2005). Franklin was president of Phi Beta Kappa, the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Southern Historical Association; was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995; and was given more than one hundred honorary degrees.

Among my favorite memories of attending the annual meetings of the Southern Historical Association are of sessions in which I was privileged to hear Franklin talk both formally and informally about history not only in terms of events and historical figures but also about the art and practice of doing history, of interpreting it for one’s contemporaries and for posterity.

The opening to his article “The Birth of a Nation: Propaganda as History,” published in The Massachusetts Review in 1979, and reprinted in his collection of essays Race and History: Selected Essays 1938-1998 (LSU Press, 1989), is a splendid analysis of what we mean by history:

The fact that certain scholars specialize in studying the past does not mean that the past as an area of serious inquiry is beyond the reach of the layman with even the most modest intellectual and professional equipment. One must respect the efforts of anyone who seeks to understand the past; but it does not follow that one must respect or accept the findings of all who inquire into the past. Nor does it follow that the curiosity seekers of one brand or another can speak for those who by training and commitment devote their major attention to a study of the past. The decades and centuries that have receded from contemporary view are too important to all of us to leave their study to those who do not bring to the task all the skills available and present their findings with a clear understanding of what history means to the present and to the future.

The study of the past may mean many things to many people. For some it means that the effort to reconstruct what actually happened in an earlier era demands an honesty and integrity that elevate the study of history to a noble enterprise. For some it means that the search for a usable past provides instruction that may help to avoid the errors of our forefathers. It is not necessary to enumerate each of the many uses of the past, but it is worth noting that not all such quests are characterized by a search for the truth. Some of the most diligent would-be historians have sought out those historical episodes that support some contemporary axe they have to grind. Others look for ways to justify and social and public policy that they and like-minded persons advocate. Others even use the past to hold up to public scorn and ridicule those who are the object of their own prejudices.

Franklin concluded his 2005 autobiography Mirror to America with this observation, not on history as a profession or a vocation, but on his hope for the future of America in the twenty-first century:

The test of an advanced society is not in how many millionaires it can produce, but in how many law-abiding, hardworking, highly respected, and self-respecting loyal citizens it can produce. The success of such a venture is a measure of the success of our national enterprise.

These words are well worth pondering—not only on his 101st birthday, but throughout 2016.