10/17/2012 05:45 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

The John Hope Franklin Papers: A Historian Becomes History

The only way we can know our past is through the records we keep and pass on. No one was more keenly aware of this than groundbreaking American historian John Hope Franklin, whose papers were recently acquired by Duke University and will soon be open to the public.

During his prolific career, Franklin spent hours in archives and libraries pouring over letters, diaries, obituaries, business records, photographs, and publications, seeking to tell a new more inclusive American history. His research itself was a form of activism. The staff in many southern libraries and archives in the 1940s and 1950s had never imagined that an African American scholar might wish to use their collections. While they could not deny that Franklin had a right to use the materials, they refused to offer him the same levels of service offered to white researchers. At North Carolina's State Department of Archives and History, for example, the director made him wait for several days while they arranged for a separate research area for him.

The archive's white staff, unwilling to serve a black researcher, required him to retrieve and reshelve the materials he used. (This latter requirement was soon dropped when white researchers complained that Franklin could browse the closed stacks while they could not -- an exquisite example of the ironies of segregation.) From his intensive engagement with historic materials emerged a long list of books and articles that would expand and enrich our understanding of American history, including From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South, The Free Negro in North Carolina, George Washington Williams: A Biography, and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North.

At the same time Franklin was writing history, he was making history. "I think knowing one's history leads one to act in a more enlightened fashion," he reflected in 1994 in Emerge magazine. "I cannot imagine how knowing one's history would not urge one to be an activist."

Franklin worked with Thurgood Marshall on the Brown v. Board of Education case and joined protestors in the march led by Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. After teaching at historically black St. Augustine's University, North Carolina Central University, and Howard University, he was recruited by Brooklyn College to chair the Department of History in 1956. He thus became the first African American to chair an academic department at a predominantly white university (news that made the front page of The New York Times). Franklin then moved to the University of Chicago, again as chair of the history department, before moving for a final time to Duke University, where he was appointed to an endowed professorship in the history department (another first). He remained engaged in the national conversation on race long after his retirement in 1992, most memorably co-chairing President Clinton's 1997 National Advisory Board on Race. After Franklin's death in 2009, his close friend Vernon Jordan lauded him as "a teacher who taught us to believe in the shield of justice and the sword of truth."

Franklin's papers have now become part of the historical record themselves. A few illustrative examples provide a personal view of this very public historian and activist. Nestled in a series of folders is the typescript of Franklin's father's autobiography. Buck Colbert Franklin was a lawyer in Oklahoma and lived through the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and its aftermath. He started his autobiography in 1956 and worked with his son to edit the document until his death in 1960. In 2000, John Hope Franklin and his son John Whittington Franklin finished the editing and published My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin. The fragile typescript bears handwritten notes and edits by all three generations and allows us to see a family's history taking shape. While the published version is very true to the typescript, a few sections were excised -- notably a reflection on the ways that segregation can lead to violence and another on human nature -- and some wording was changed to reflect more modern sensibilities.

In another box, a substantial stack of typed notecards bears testimony to the contributions of historians during the Brown v. Board of Education litigation in the early 1950s. The question at hand was whether the Congress that passed the Fourteenth Amendment and the state legislatures that ratified it believed that the amendment would abolish segregation in public schools. Franklin scoured the records of state governments and reports in contemporary newspapers looking for evidence. ("Historians to the rescue!" Franklin quipped in his autobiography.) Many notecards he generated during his research include his typed or handwritten comments alongside the excerpts. His initial research plan and a handwritten outline of his findings rest alongside the cards. This research, along with that provided by other notable historians, provided the foundation for the legal brief filed by the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, and these cards allow us to sit alongside Franklin as he identified and weighed the evidence.

Wonderful things are often filed in unexpected places. A small portrait of Frederick Douglass is clipped to a letter at the front of a folder full of correspondence related to Franklin's article for LIFE magazine's 1968 series "A Search for the Black Past." Despite Franklin's broad interests in American history, in the eyes of the public he was most identified with African American history, and many people wrote to him about the series. The correspondent who sent him this small photograph noted that it had been given to him by his grandfather (who remembered the Civil War years and called Douglass as "the [most] powerfull negro in America.") The letter was written on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, birthday a mere six years after Dr. King's assassination. In his response, Franklin replied that he had not been able to find another copy of this particular photo and would try other sources. As we don't have any other notes about his findings, it is up to present researchers to continue the search.

John Hope Franklin is a towering figure in American historiography. His papers allow us to look over his shoulder as he developed his ideas and worked for a more inclusive and equitable society. We are fortunate indeed that he saw himself as both historian and history.

The John Hope Franklin Papers are currently being prepared for research use. The date when they will open to the public will be announced on the website of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke:

Naomi L. Nelson is the Director of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University.