The Road From Rentiesville

PrintPrintEmailEmailNo one needed to convert John Hope Franklin to racial consciousness or to social activism. For most of his life, as a scholar and teacher, as a public servant and activist, he has considered his personal commitment to social justice no less than a moral imperative. His ongoing and extraordinary career has broken and challenged many a racial barrier, from his student activities at Fisk University to his role as a historical adviser to Thurgood Marshall in assembling materials for Brown v. Board of Education, from his efforts to conduct historical research in a segregated South to his appointment to chair the advisory board for President Clinton’s Initiative on Race.

In his writing, as in his teaching, John Hope Franklin, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History and Professor of Legal History at Duke University Law School, has defied traditional categories. He is an African-American historian, a Southern historian, an American historian. Just as he broke the color line in Southern archives as a graduate student, so he broke that same color line in Southern studies as a writer and teacher, moving from the largely segregated field of Negro history (as it was then called) to Southern history, an exclusively white domain. It was never easy. “The world of the Negro scholar is indescribably lonely,” he wrote in 1963, “and he must, somehow, pursue truth down that lonely path while, at the same time, making certain that his conclusions are sanctioned by universal standards developed and maintained by those who frequently do not even recognize him.”

 
 
“My dad went to Tulsa. . . . he was becoming very successful there when the riot came.”

Like Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois, Franklin demonstrated to a skeptical or an indifferent profession that the history of black Americans was a legitimate field for scholarly inquiry and investigation. His first book, published in 1943, broke new ground in exploring the anomalous position of free blacks in the slave South, focusing on North Carolina. His most recent book, cowritten with Loren Schweninger and published in 1999, is Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation , the most deeply researched study of a group of men and women whose exploits have often been shrouded in myth or simply ignored. Franklin and Schweninger have helped redeem the rightful place of these “freedom fighters” in the historic struggle for justice and human dignity.

For several generations, for more than three million students and nonstudents alike, John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom , first published in 1947, has been the introduction to African-American history and even to the idea that African-Americans had a history. It remains, in its eighth edition, the definitive history of black Americans, authoritative, comprehensive, eminently readable, and highly influential. Like our best historians, Franklin cares deeply about how to communicate history, about the need to make it available not only to historians but to a larger public. And like our finest and most disturbing historians, he has never been “fashionable.” In a lifetime of writing and teaching, he has demonstrated both independence of mind and a deep respect for the complexity and integrity of the past. He is too good a historian to romanticize it; he is too good a historian to replace old lies with new myths or with eulogistic sketches of heroes and heroines. He is too good a historian to subordinate history to ideology, to the polemical needs of the present. He fully appreciates the ways in which race hustlers and ethnocentrists, white and black, have sought to use the past and how for more than a century the abuse of the past by historians and others helped legitimize a complex of racial laws, practices, and beliefs.

Throughout his life, John Hope Franklin has used the pen and his voice to “force America to keep faith with herself.” We first met some 45 years ago, when he came to the University of California at Berkeley to teach a course in American social history and I served as his graduate assistant. We have seen each other frequently since that time, most recently when I interviewed him at his home in Durham, North Carolina, for American Heritage .

I’d like to go back to the beginning. How did you come to be born in what was then called an “old Negro town,” Rentiesville, Oklahoma?