Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Marian Wright Edelman Headshot

Dr. John Hope Franklin -- Scholar, Teacher, Activist, Friend

Posted: Updated:

On March 25, beloved historian John Hope Franklin, the nation's leading scholar of Black history, passed away at age 94. Dr. Franklin became a scholar of Black history at a time when many other "experts" didn't believe there was anything about Black history worth studying. One of the first to treat the subject with the academic respect it deserves, he mentored three generations of historians and was an inspiration to countless young people. Dr. Franklin said he was always most interested in telling untold stories, and as important as books are, he stressed the necessity of knowing about the world beyond books, by going out to meet new people, exploring new places and continuing to learn. Dr. Franklin did this his entire life.

Stately, handsome, dignified, and brilliant, Dr. John Hope Franklin was born in Oklahoma in 1915. His own life was shaped by the major transformations of 20th century Black and American history. His mother was a teacher, and his father was a lawyer who lost everything in the Tulsa race riots of 1921. But his parents' legacy to him wasn't about bitterness or violence. It was about the courage, grit and intelligence to overcome racism, segregation and any barriers standing in the way of accomplishing his goals. His father stressed the discipline of reading or writing something every single night. Dr. Franklin graduated from Fisk University when he was 20 years old and went on to Harvard University, earning his master's degree in 1936 and his doctorate in 1941. He then began his career as a university professor. He gained national recognition for his seminal 1947 volume, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, now in its eighth edition.

John Hope Franklin was in the first rank among American scholars, but his greatest role was that of teacher. He told the story of a chance meeting with Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois while Franklin was still a graduate student at Harvard, and how he tried but failed to engage Du Bois in a conversation. Deeply disappointed, Dr. Franklin promised himself he would never shut out a young person that way. He later became good friends with Dr. Du Bois but never forgot that lesson and was well known as a generous mentor. Dr. Franklin taught at many universities, including Fisk, Howard, the University of Chicago, where he chaired the history department, and Duke University, where he was named the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History. Duke established the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies, reflecting Dr. Franklin's extraordinary range of knowledge and interests, not just about Black history but about many subjects and cultures.

Having a center of learning at Duke University named after him was just one of dozens of honors he received over his professional life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian award. In addition to his stellar scholarship, he served on many national and international panels, including chairing the advisory board for One America, President Clinton's Initiative on Race.

Personally and professionally, I benefited from John Hope Franklin's extraordinary wisdom and example and friendship. He co-convened with Dr. Dorothy Height and the Children's Defense Fund a meeting of 22 Black leaders in 1990 that launched the Black Community Crusade for Children® Program to Leave No Child Behind. Yes, that's where those words come from! Coordinated nationally by the Children's Defense Fund, we committed to weave and reweave the rich fabric of family and community that historically have been the cornerstones of the healthy development of Black children; to tap into and strengthen the strong Black community tradition of self-help; to rebuild the bridges between the Black middle class and poor; to assist and galvanize current Black leadership around specific goals for children; and to identify, train, nurture, link and empower a new generation of effective Black servant-leaders under the age of 30. Since that 1990 meeting, about ten thousand Black youths have been trained at CDF Haley Farm, community models like the summer CDF Freedom Schools® program have been established at sites across the country, and CDF Haley Farm has become the center for spiritual renewal and leadership development for the 21st century children's movement. The reading room at CDF Haley Farm's Langston Hughes Library, designed by Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, honors John Hope Franklin and our sister mentor, Dr. Maya Angelou.

Even in his last decades, Dr. Franklin's mind remained as supple, sharp, active and inquiring as when he was a freshman at Fisk University. He continued cultivating orchids, another of his deep passions, and never stopped dreaming about our children's futures. In January 2005, Duke honored his 90th birthday with a series of special events, capped off with a lecture by Dr. Franklin, which happened to be scheduled on the day of President Bush's second inauguration. Dr. Franklin decided to make that talk his own "Inaugural Address." He said that when he was a child he would tell people that when he grew up he wanted to be "the first Negro president," and so he was giving the speech he would have delivered if he had been elected. He warned his audience about how much prejudice, racism and injustice still existed in America--all incompatible, of course, with his own vision for what America could and must become.

John Hope Franklin may not have grown up to be the first Black President himself, but how wonderful that he did get to see the inauguration of the first Black President during his lifetime. He was thrilled to witness that historic event. When Dr. Franklin passed away, President Obama said, "Because of the life John Hope Franklin lived, the public service he rendered, and the scholarship that was the mark of his distinguished career, we all have a richer understanding of who we are as Americans and our journey as a people." President Obama, like many of us, owes a profound debt of gratitude to this great man for the road he paved for us all. I will miss him so much.

Marian Wright Edelman, whose latest book is The Sea Is So Wide And My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, is president of the Children's Defense Fund. For more information about the Children's Defense Fund, go to

From Our Partners