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  News & Views

Farewell, John Hope

Editor’s Note: When the revered American historian John Hope Franklin died earlier this year, obituary writers around the world honored the passing of a beloved man who had left for posterity the nation’s most profound comprehension of the terrible consequences of slavery in the United States. Here Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. pays tribute to the memory of a man he calls “The Prince.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

When I was 20, I decided to hitchhike across the African continent, more or less following the line of the equator, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. I packed only one pair of sandals and one pair of jeans to make room for the three hefty books I had decided to read from cover to cover: Don Quixote, Moby Dick, and From Slavery to Freedom, the latter of which I read while recovering from a severe bout of amebic dysentery sailing down the Congo River.

I first encountered John Hope Franklin through the pages of  the “black and white” paperback edition of his now classic textbook, From Slavery to Freedom. It is so very useful as a reference source that I long kept a copy of that edition in the bookcase at my bedside. Like just about everyone else black at Yale in 1969, I enrolled in the Introduction to Afro-American History survey course, taught quite ably by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, William McFeely, in spite of the fact that someone at the end of each class would find a way to bring up the fact that while our subject matter was black, McFeely was quite white, and hadn’t he better find a way to remedy that fact? With the patience of Job, McFeely each week would graciously grant his accuser the point, add that he hoped to put himself out of a job just as soon as a black historian could be found to take his place, then remind us that the textbook around which our course was structured had been written by a black man, a black man who had been trained at Harvard.

John Hope Franklin was the last of the great generation of black historians trained at Harvard in the first half of the twentieth century. Harvard, more than any other single school, is more directly responsible for the training of the first generation of black historians who institutionalized the study of African-American history than any other school. The list is astonishingly impressive, actually: W.E.B. Du Bois in 1895; Carter G. Woodson (the father of Black History Month) in 1912; Charles Wesley in 1925; Rayford W. Logan in 1936, and the youngest and last of this group, Franklin himself, in 1941. Both because he was the youngest member of this academic royal family and because he was lean and elegant, poised and cosmopolitan, a younger generation would call him “The Prince.” Franklin, by the way, was named after John Hope, a graduate of Brown who taught Franklin’s parents at Roger Williams University in Nashville, before serving 25 years as the president of Morehouse College, then Atlanta University. His pedigree was a noble one.

Each of these Harvard-trained historians taught at historically black schools, and all but Du Bois taught in the history department at Howard. Only one, John Hope Franklin, would ever be tenured at a white university. In a very real sense, Harvard gave birth to a central component of the Howard history department, which in many ways gave birth to the academic study of black history. Howard would nurture and train the bulk of the great black historians until historically white universities in the 1970s and 1980s made black history a standard part of their curriculum.

Because of the strictures of segregation, only the youngest member of this extraordinary group could even dream of teaching history in a white college or university; the painfully slow integration of the faculty at these schools becoming in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s one of the academic branches of the civil rights movement, along with the integration of their student bodies. Integrating the faculty at white schools would prove to be much more difficult than integrating student bodies. But even Franklin was forced to commence his career in the 1940s teaching at historically black schools, including his alma mater Fisk, St. Augustine’s College, and what is now North Carolina Central University, before moving to Howard. (Black faculty were as scarce as hens’ teeth at white schools: when the Rosenwald Fund offered in the early 1940s to fund “a chair for a Negro” at a few select universities, including Harvard and Yale, only the University of Chicago responded positively; the president of Yale wrote back saying that he couldn’t imagine such a thing.) Franklin was young enough to witness the dramatic successes of the civil rights movement in the early 1950s, events that allowed him to dream of becoming the first black professor in the history department at his alma mater. Given his age, his productivity, the changing racial temper of the times following Dr. King’s success in Birmingham, it was reasonable for him to assume that history just might give him that chance.

He had positioned himself for this honor brilliantly, publishing several well-received articles and books, especially his comprehensive synthesis of the African-American past, a survey of black history that appealed to a general readership as well as to students, becoming the first popular college textbook in the field. Textbooks are to the study of history that which anthologies are to the study of literature. They make a complex set of experiences teachable, over one or two semesters. W.W. Norton calls its anthologies “a course in a textbook,” and that is what a very good history textbook also implicitly achieves. But not only was From Slavery to Freedom the first of its genre, it was canon-forming. It gave to the black historical tradition a self-contained form through which it could be institutionalized — parsed, divided into 15 weeks, packaged and taught — from Harlem to Harvard, and even or especially in those places where almost no black people actually lived. Every scholar of my generation studied Franklin’s book in a survey course in African-American history; in this sense, we are all his godchildren.

To take hold as an academic discipline, every field of study must, as it were, be marketable, must be delivered in a learned but easily digestible form, and that is what Franklin achieved in From Slavery to Freedom, which as of 2003 had sold over 3 million copies. Every subsequent textbook in African-American history is a revision of or reaction to Franklin’s 1947 book, a bread-and-butter compendium of who did what to whom and when between 1619 and the present. (The first three chapters of the third edition speak of Africa, but Africa is not Franklin’s prime or central focus, given the book’s post-war ideological thrust to establish the constitutive relation between white America and black America, certainly a radical notion at that time.) Despite all of the important work published by his four predecessors at Harvard, Franklin was the first to publish a comprehensive and popular story of the Negro’s place in American life. And that, well, was a historic “first” in black scholarship. But it was another “first” that, by the late 1960s, certainly seemed within his reach.

That Harvard had trained him as a historian certainly wouldn’t hurt his chances of becoming the first black history professor there. By the late 1960s, that dream certainly seemed to be in his grasp, especially after he had integrated the history department at Brooklyn College in 1956, recruited there to be chair (a major event for integration noted astonishingly on the front page of The New York Times). By virtue of this appointment alone, Franklin became the dominant figure in his field. When he moved to the Midwest in 1964 to integrate the history department at the University of Chicago, just a year after Dr. King’s March on Washington, Franklin could scarcely imagine that student rebellions five years later would make his recruitment to Harvard at the end of the decade both quite urgent and seemingly inevitable.

Harvard and Yale and most other research universities instituted courses and majors in Afro-American studies in the fall of 1969. Desperate searches ensued for black faculty to teach these courses. While my classmates and I down in New Haven were busy busting William McFeely’s chops for being white, Harvard had the good sense to invite John Hope Franklin to become the first chair of its fledgling academic department, an autonomous unit that had the theoretical right, at least, to grant its own tenure, the hallmark of any serious academic unit. After all, who, among all of the black scholars in America, was more appropriate for this role than Franklin? As anyone who read his great textbook quickly realized, Franklin had an understandably principled opposition to academic segregation or “ghettoization” of any kind. His appointment would have to include the history department, certainly a reasonable expectation in his case. And that would be a problem.

As he put the matter squarely in his preface to the first edition of his textbook, dated April 4, 1947, writing the history of the Negro in America in fact amounts to a rewriting of American history itself; the process “has involved a continuous recognition of the main stream of American history and the relationship of the Negro to it. It has been necessary, therefore, to a considerable extent, to re-tell the story of the evolution of the people of the United States in order to place the Negro in his proper relationship and perspective,” for the simple but undeniable reason that “historical forces are all pervasive and cut through the most rigid barriers of race and caste.” Negroes have made America, but just as surely America has remade the Negro, Franklin maintains, pointing to the amount of attention he pays to “the interaction of the Negro and the American environment.” If America is, to a large extent, “black,” he implies, blacks are “as truly American as any member of other ethnic groups that make up the American population.” 

How, in other words, could such an entity exist as American studies without the sufficient study of the Negro? Likewise, how could we possibly conceive of studying the Negro outside of the context of the shaping force of the crucible of the larger American culture? But in 1969, in the maelstrom of the Black Power movement as it was busy manifesting itself on college campuses in the form of black studies programs, he was willing to hold his breath and put aside his suspicions about the uneven and troubled origins and stated intentions of the nascent field of Afro-American studies, however, if faculty hired to teach in it were jointly appointed in the departments in which they had taken their degrees.  After all, until very recently, none of us who teach African-American studies could possibly have taken degrees in our own field; most of us straddle two departments, down to the structure of our salaries and our voting privileges. With Franklin’s pedigree, a joint appointment should have been a natural. 

But it was not to be. The tenured faculty of history at Harvard, including some of the classmates with whom he had studied while pursuing the Ph.D., refused to grant Franklin tenure; his appointment, were he to accept the offer of chairman, would be solely in the department of Afro-American studies. Franklin angrily rejected the offer, calling it the most egregious insult of his academic career. Although he would accept an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 1981, in large part as a snub to the history department, Franklin never forgave his professional colleagues for the insult. In fact, he took a certain perverse pleasure in talking black scholars out of accepting tenured professorships at Harvard, including most famously William Julius Wilson and Cornel West in the 1980s. When Drew Faust was inaugurated two years ago, one of the few featured speakers was John Hope, who spoke “on behalf of the history profession.” This painful history, of which only a few of us were aware, made President Faust’s gesture all the more poignant.

The experience with Harvard’s history department also deepened his initial skepticism about the entire field of black studies, making him until the 1990s an ardent foe if it was defined as a separate entity, a subject area set apart from and not integrated with the traditional disciplines. I once heard a black nationalist assistant professor at Yale in the late 1970s refer to him derogatorily as “John Hopeless Franklin.” For Franklin, there could be no black history without “history,” as it were, and on this point he was unequivocal. For most of his career, Franklin saw black studies as the unfortunate correlative of Jim Crow segregation, but this time it had been self-imposed by well-meaning but naive black students and complicitous black professors eager to get lucrative jobs at historically white institutions.

John Hope and I had met at Yale in the early 1980s, over a small dinner attended by the great historians David Brion Davis and John W. Blassingame following his lecture. David Davis turned to me during dinner and asked if I had ever discovered  how I had been selected in the first group of MacArthur Fellows. As I attempted to say no, John Hope from the far end of the table had thundered out that he knew precisely how I had been selected, because he had done the selecting! It was a bit like winning the fellowship all over again, as I blinked back tears. I told him how influenced I had been by From Slavery to Freedom, and that I had carried my copy of the third edition, published in 1967, with me across the continent, reading it from cover to cover. (I didn’t tell him that I felt that edition was his best, and that subsequent editions, perhaps responding to the pressures from publishers to make textbooks more “readable,” more accessible, seemed dumbed down, a long way in style from the densely rich narrative blend of documented facts with philosophical speculation and musings that characterized the black-and-white edition.) We stayed in touch after that, mostly by phone. One day he called to ask me to accept an offer that had just been extended by Stanley Fish in Duke’s English department.

My tenure at Duke was regrettably brief. Still, it gave me time to get to know John Hope better, to listen to his stories about school and segregation, about the academic life before Brown and his role in and perceptions of the civil rights movement. Best of all, I loved his anecdotes.


When John Hope Franklin Met W.E.B. Du Bois

His favorite story was about the day he met W.E.B. Du Bois. Franklin was a graduate student at Harvard, doing research in North Carolina for his thesis on the free Negro in North Carolina before the Civil War. All black people had to find lodging in segregated boarding homes or guest houses, and take their meals in segregated restaurants, if such entities existed. John Hope, taking his evening meal in one of these, the Arcade Hotel in the spring of 1939, spotted the great Du Bois dining alone in a corner. Cautiously, tentatively, he approached his hero. Du Bois’ gaze was riveted on a book. John Hope loved describing what happened next:

“Seeing Dr. Du Bois dining alone and reading, I decided that this was an opportunity that I would not let pass. Crossing the dining room, I approached his table and spoke to him, giving him my full name. Surely he would recognize the fact that I was named for one of his closest friends and hearing it would embrace me. He did not even look up. Then I told him that I was a graduate of Fisk University, class of 1935. That, I assumed, would bring him to his feet singing “Gold and Blue.” Again, he continued to read and eat, without looking up. Finally, as a last resort, I told him that I was a graduate student in history at Harvard and was in Raleigh doing research for my dissertation. Without looking up from his book or plate, he said, ‘How do you do.’ Dejected, I retreated, completed my dinner, and withdrew from the dining room.”

John Hope loved to tell that story, always ending it with “Of course we became close friends later, when he and his wife, Shirley, lived in Brooklyn and I was teaching at the College.” He also liked to tell the story as the cautionary tale explaining why he was so very generous with younger colleagues.  The only story that I ever heard him tell so frequently was the story of his aborted recruitment to Harvard.

Two years ago, Butler University invited us both to campus for a dialogue. I agreed, but only if I could play the role of interviewer, and if we could talk with no strict time limit attached.  John Hope regaled a standing room only crowd in Clowes Memorial Auditorium for over two hours with stories about his family, his education, his political beliefs, his triumphs and his disappointments, his bitter feelings about Ronald Reagan, his reverence for Bill Clinton, his mixed feelings about the state of black America, and his refusal to serve in World War II. And then we dined together, sharing a bottle of Margaux, followed by a cognac. 

He congratulated me on recruiting Bill Wilson and Cornel West to Harvard despite his best efforts to dissuade them from coming. I congratulated him on receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom; he returned the compliment about my receipt of the National Medal of the Humanities. I congratulated him on Duke’s creation of the John Hope Franklin Research Center, and the forthcoming edition of From Slavery to Freedom, being revised by my colleague Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the first black professor ever to receive tenure in Harvard’s history department. I told him how much I valued the old third edition, the one with the black-and-white cover, and that I deeply regretted that it had gotten misplaced somehow. He told me he was proud of what we had created at Harvard. I shared with him the faculty’s decision to co-name the library at the Du Bois Institute in his honor. He promised to visit, which he did following his speech at Drew Faust’s inauguration. He seemed touched by the gesture.

A few days later, a FedEx envelope arrived at my house in Cambridge. Inside was another package, carefully wrapped in brown paper, the way antiquarians in England wrap books that they mail. When I give books as Christmas presents, I wrap them the same way. There is something wonderful about that brown wrapping paper. It was a signed copy of From Slavery to Freedom (“With affectionate best wishes”), the black-and-white paperback edition, dated 1967, the same one that Professor McFeely had assigned us back at Yale. It sits in the bookshelf by my bedside.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University.