PUBLISHED:April 20, 2009

John Hope Franklin: A life steeped in law and history

April 20, 2009 — At a lunchtime event on April 17, John Hope Franklin was remembered fondly by colleagues and close friends for his towering achievements in the field of American history and law, his courageous participation in many of the events he chronicled, and his steadfast kindness and equanimity in the face of daunting obstacles.

Franklin, the James B. Duke Emeritus Professor of History at Duke University, died March 25 at the age of 94. Best known for his epic 1947 work, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, Franklin taught Constitutional History at the Law School from 1985 to 1992.

“We’ve heard from many of our graduates who say that this course was the most inspiring and the most important experiences of their law school careers,” said Dean David F. Levi. “John Hope Franklin used to say that his life as a historian would not have been complete except for those seven years that he spent here in our law school.” The John Hope Franklin Chair in American Legal History that has recently been endowed at the Law School will carry on the legacy of Franklin’s work, added Levi, with whom the historian had a longtime friendship.

It was not surprising that Franklin first considered following his father into a legal career, as much of his life was “hemmed in … on all sides” by Jim Crow laws, observed Thavolia Glymph, associate professor of African and African American Studies and History at Duke University. Also a friend of long standing, Glymph praised Franklin’s body of work as “unrivalled in many fundamental ways.”

“Dr. Franklin, over the course of his life as a scholar and as a citizen of the world, worked to ensure that we told the truth and we did not simply remember things that we regard as creditable or inspiring,” she said. “He told the truth about the ground that nourishes racism.” His activism increased in the last decades of his life, she noted, “more determined to show that state action can right racial wrongs and injustices of men.”

On a personal level, Glymph said she “will remember Dr. Franklin most for teaching all of us how to live scholarly, yet human and humane lives … how to live so that the footprint we leave behind makes a difference in our common search for justice and the pursuit of knowledge.”

William Leuchtenberg, the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, also recalled the “outrageous indignities” his friend of more than 50 years had to suffer in the course of his life and career. During the war years, on a train journey in North Carolina from Greensboro to Durham, Franklin was compelled to stand, “though there were ample seats in the next coach, because those coach seats were reserved for whites who sat there grinning at his discomfort,” recounted Leuchtenberg. “They were Nazi prisoners of war.” Franklin also was isolated from white researchers while doing archival research in Raleigh during his graduate studies at Harvard.

Most remarkable, said Leuchtenberg, was the way his friend combined “equitable composure with a courageous commitment to speak out against injustice.” Noting that Franklin was an intensely proud American and scholar of American history — “he did not want to be segmented” — Leuchtenberg said, “We ought to be thinking of him as one of the truly great Americans of the 20th century.

A leading presidential historian, Leuchtenberg co-taught Constitutional History at Duke Law with Franklin and Walter Dellinger, the Douglas B. Maggs Emeritus Professor of Law; Dellinger focused on the creation of the Constitution, Franklin on the fugitive-slave cases of the 1840s, the Civil War, and the 14th Amendment, and Leuchtenberg on the constitutional crisis of the 1930s and how it affected the law. Leuchtenberg confirmed how important the experience was for Franklin, who had worked on such landmark cases at Brown v. Board of Education but had never taught in a law school.

“For the first time, he had to see historical events through the eyes of lawyers and … judges,” said Leuchtenberg. “I know he appreciated the enthusiasm of the students. And because I followed John Hope, I knew … how much they admired him.”

Franklin lived the life of a participant his history as well as a scholar who moved the story of African-Americans into the main American narrative and transformed how we see the history of the nation, Dellinger said. “I loved the pictures of John Hope on the march [with Martin Luther King Jr.] from Selma to Montgomery. … You could say that the man who documented the history of the black American was then a first-hand participant in one of its essential chapters which he himself was to report.”

Observing that “John Hope never compromised on principle,” Dellinger added that he combined genial kindness with a “fierce militancy.” “Somehow in John Hope they merged, and merged in a way that made an integrated whole.”

» View the webcast of "John Hope Franklin: A Life in Law and History"

» Read Walter Dellinger's tribute to John Hope Franklin, published in The Washington Post