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John Hope Franklin: A Precious Black Orchid

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"I want to be out there on the firing line, helping, directing or doing something to try to make this a better world--a better place to live."

--John Hope Franklin

We lost a giant of a man March 25th in John Hope Franklin.

He was brilliant, humble, elegant, dignified, real and regal. He led the life of a true academician. He was a scholar and a gentleman. Franklin was the preeminent historian and scholar of African American history. His works are well regarded, translated into many languages and respected worldwide.

Franklin is the author of many books, but his landmark edition is From Slavery to Freedom, which he wrote in 1947. It is a classic in the discipline of African American history and a must read for all. This document changed the way American history was viewed. His body of written works provides viewpoint and perspective and added to America's historical dialogue. He presented it, explained it, documented and opened a new field of study. But Franklin was more than an academic. He was an unusual scholar. While most scholars are content with conducting research, writing and lecturing, he was quite the activist.

Franklin was born and raised in Oklahoma, living in a segregated community. He lived a life of segregation with all the insults, indignations and restrictions that go along with a black man who lived to be 94. He understood racism and fought it. He directly and theoretically helped facilitate integration. He was a primary reference behind the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case against racial segregation by providing historical and scholastic interpretation about the theory and practices of "separate but equal" to NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall.

After graduating from Fisk University, Franklin earned a doctorate from Harvard University in 1941. (He was eventually awarded more than 130 honorary degrees from colleges and universities). The trailblazer's name appears on many rosters: Franklin was the first African-American to head a major history department at Brooklyn College in New York and the first black professor to hold an endowed chair at Duke University. He was the chairman of the Department of History at the University of Chicago. He taught at St. Augustine's College, North Carolina Central University and Howard University.

He lectured worldwide and made an annual trip to England, a place he loved, where he served as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University.

Franklin didn't just write about history, he lived it and participated firsthand.

Franklin did not accept speaking engagements in February because he saw such invitations as insulting; it was unjustly limiting to reserve a single month for such an important history.

He often told the story of hosting a party in New York at a private club, where he was undoubtedly one of the first black members, in celebration of a career milestone. As he stood there, a white woman gave him the ticket for her coat, thinking he was an employee of the club, not a member. He politely instructed her to give her ticket to the proper person, so she could be served. Though insulted, he was gracious.

In 1995, Franklin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. When he was a child growing up, his mother told him to tell people when they asked what his career goals were that he wanted to be the first Negro to be the President of United States. He never sought elected office but he lived to see the historical moment happen and his benchmark accomplishments paved the way.

In 2006, The N'Digo Foundation awarded Franklin the Lifetime Achievement Award for his magnificent work. I got to spend quality time with him as a result. He was sharp in mind and stature. During Franklin's visit here, my friends Josie Childs and Eileen Mackevich hosted him. It was quite a weekend. I was afraid he would tire because we had so many activities packed into a few days, but he was fit and almost had more energy than all of us combined. He'd released his autobiography Mirror to America and he had a book signing party at Eileen's home. I also conducted a one-on-one interview with the historian at the Carter G. Woodson Library, the Vivian G. Harsh Research annex. The event boasted a full house and may have been his final Chicago interview.

Franklin discussed his personal views about history and told wonderful stories of his life. Some stories were sad and revealed America's ugly, racist side, in spite of Franklin's reaching worldwide acclaim. Others were beautiful. Like the loving stories he told about his wife, Aurelia, whom he met at Fisk. Their marriage was a long honeymoon. She was his life partner and preceded him in death.

It wasn't all work for Franklin, though.

One of his hobbies was growing orchids. (He even has an orchid named after him.) He recognized the orchid as a delicate flower.

There should be salutes to John Hope Franklin for his wonderful contributions to American society. For a fascinating read and a look at modern-day history read his book, Mirror America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin, and you'll find that he was, indeed a precious black orchid.