John Hope Franklin and WWII as a Crisis of Democracy

This post is part of our forum on Black Intellectuals and the Crisis of Democracy.

John Hope Franklin at the Archives Advisory Council meeting, May 8, 1970 (National Archives)

Since its 1947 publication, extensive literature has discussed the production and reception of John Hope Franklin’s landmark work From Slavery to FreedomMany recognize the colossal effort an always industrious Franklin undertook at the Library of Congress, working as many as 16 hours a day and writing 240,000 words in his first seven months of writing. Few, however, have noted how Franklin continued writing what is generally considered his seminal work whilst his brother Buck Jr. lay gravely ill in Richmond, Virginia, with Franklin visiting him every weekend in April 1947.

Buck Jr., a high school principal who had presided over Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity at Fisk University and inspired Franklin to follow his path to Fisk, died in July 1947 in ambiguous circumstances. Since his honorable discharge from the US Army Air Corps in 1944, he had frequently struggled with his mental health. While Franklin often avoided discussing Buck Jr.’s death, he argued most pointedly in 1990 that Buck Jr. was “abused by his white, uneducated staff sergeant, consigned to the kitchen brigade, and driven to an early grave, two years after the close of the war, by the insensitive, barbaric treatment of those who draped themselves in the flag and sang the national anthem even as they destroyed the nation’s ideals and its people.”

Buck Jr’s story speaks to the degree Franklin’s scholarship and From Slavery to Freedom was informed by his personal experiences in WWII. Like many Black intellectuals of the era, Franklin interpreted WWII as a prime indicator of the hypocrisy of American democracy as segregated armies fought to combat racial terror abroad. This was most apparent when Franklin was segregated from white German prisoners of war on a train from Greensboro to Durham in 1945, one of many personal anecdotes he would frequently recount in his later life to recall the realities of Jim Crow.

War and post-war settlement consistently appear in Franklin’s scholarship as crises of democracy that brought both windows for social advancement and violent racial retrenchment. After all, from Reconstruction After the Civil War’s attention to the role of white violence in overthrowing Reconstruction to The Militant South’s detailed inventory of how militancy was embedded in Antebellum Southern society, Franklin’s scholarship persistently recognized how violence underpinned American racial orders. Throughout Franklin’s writings, however, the segregation of the American armed forces operates as the ultimate indictment of America’s putative democratic order, giving From Slavery to Freedom’s chapters on the World Wars their noticeably more strident tone.

The John Hope Franklin Papers reveal Franklin’s tireless efforts to mobilize and reform HBCUs to contribute towards the war effort and ease the post-war transition. These suggestions were remarkably comprehensive for an emerging scholar. For example, in his first appointment at St Augustine’s College, Franklin chaired a War Council which arranged scrap metal salvage drives, encouraged the purchasing of War Bonds, and recruited teams of wardens, firefighters, and first-aiders. Working with North Carolina archivists and bibliographers, he sought to collect documents evidencing Black contributions towards WWII so that they would not go unrecognized thereafter. After moving to North Carolina College for Negroes, Franklin sent several exhaustive letters to President James E. Shepard (his chief ally in his attempts to avoid the draft) planning a “Veterans Counselling Service College” to train ex-soldiers to become assets to their communities. Such initiatives reflected the latent energies of an ardent pacificist denied a naval typist role because he had every qualification bar color. So too was Franklin frustrated in his extensive attempts to dedicate his training to the War Historical Service that occupied several contemporary white historians including C. Vann Woodward and Kenneth Stampp.

In a notable interracial encounter, Franklin discussed this campaign whilst visiting the home of Frank Porter Graham, the President of the University of North Carolina System. Graham encouraged Franklin to write to Eleanor Roosevelt. Franklin emphasized to Roosevelt that due to the critical Black participation in the war’s civilian and military aspects, it would be “most valuable for the post-war period that an accurate and objective account of his participation be recorded.”1 Roosevelt passed Franklin’s inquiry to the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who recommended that Franklin would encounter more research opportunities were he to work for a newspaper. Whilst receiving sympathy from many in the Army War College, Franklin never received a response but saw many white students he knew to have dropped out of their Harvard PhDs being recruited.

Franklin’s perception of a crisis of democracy was, however, most powerfully expressed in his 1945 Phylon article ‘History: Weapon of War and Peace.’ Recognizing a moment that was “threatening the very foundations of our civilization,” Franklin denounced those historians who “plied their trade with a view to exciting national, racial, or religious hatred.” Historians including Alfred Mahan “not only stamped indelible marks of shame upon their profession, but have also performed a revolting disservice to humanity.” Instead, Franklin sought a tradition that utilized history “for the greater development of the individual, his freedom, and his happiness,” celebrating the “progressive realization of the ideals of the human spirit.” This was a humanizing project indicative of Franklin’s liberal arts education. As he concluded, “the achievement of perfection in human relations involves the utilization of the product of men’s minds for the peace, health, safety and general welfare of the whole community. Any activity of man’s mind which does not have this as its aim in obstructing man’s march toward perfection.”

Franklin thus situated history as a humanizing discipline uniquely befitted to restoring democracy, which was “essentially an act of faith” in humanity’s perfectibility. Historians, particularly those of subjugated groups, were uniquely positioned to expose the inconsistencies in American traditions towards that end, guarding against the “evil traditions of American life.”2 Here, then, was a formulation that linked Black democratic strivings to the global struggle towards democracy and independence, indicating Franklin’s understanding of both Black history’s global vision and the historian’s role as the conscience of the nation.

Throughout his career, Franklin sought this capacious and unbiased history as the primary means of forcing American democracy to keep faith with itself. Commencing with his doctoral research into North Carolina’s Free Negroes, he was an adept charter of paradox and irony, highlighting promises inconsistently fulfilled and consistently ignored. Franklin’s Black liberalism, whilst later criticized as an atheoretical desegregationism, sought the actualization of liberal democratic constitutionalism in socio-political practice. Franklin neither suggested an alternative national unit nor an alternative framework of political organization.

Nevertheless, works including 1976’s Racial Equality in America painstakingly illustrated how Black contributions to the national story, particularly in wartime, were never subsequently rewarded with the deserved apportionment of legal or political rights. Asserting that Americans relentlessly pursued equality from the founding onwards, Franklin suggested that equalization was dashed on the rocks of race from the very beginning. Whilst even an increasingly disillusioned Franklin in the 1980s and 1990s remained a keen proponent of American democracy, and he always considered it enfeebled by the state of crisis borne of this original disparity between ideals and reality.

Studying Franklin thus provides a powerful lens on the rise and denouement at this particular juncture of mid-century Black liberalism. It too offers vital lessons regarding historians’ roles in a nation still grappling with the symptoms of racial sameness. In a formulation resembling W.E.B. Du Bois’s famed “second sight,” Franklin argued in 1986 that WWII made his generation of historians “especially sensitive” to American hypocrisy, rendering Black intellectuals the foremost critics in the perfection of American democracy.3

This thesis is perhaps most apparent in the words that concluded every edition of From Slavery to Freedom published in Franklin’s lifetimea work Franklin considered critical to making sense of the relationship between African Americans and the rest of American society and thus combatting post-war estrangementDespite five decades of historical change, it cannot be considered inconsequential that Franklin left the work’s millions of eventual readers to contemplate the remaining disparities between American ideals and practice, summoning them to expose these contradictions and so materialize a more genuine American democracy:

As they [African Americans] moved together with other peoples into another era at the close of World War II, they gave evidence of greater maturity as a result of their experiences. They had become an integral part of Western culture and civilization, and their fate was inextricably connected with it. The rejections which they had suffered doubtless wounded them considerably, but such treatment also gave them a perspective and an objectivity that others had greater difficulty in achieving. They could, therefore, point out more clearly than some others the weaknesses that seemed to be inherent in Western civilization… If America’s role in the atomic age was to lead the world toward peace and international understanding, the Negro element in the population had a peculiar function to perform in carrying forward the struggle for freedom at home, for the sake of America’s role, and abroad, for the sake of the survival of the world.4

  1. Franklin to Eleanor Roosevelt, December 4th, 1942, ‘Roosevelt, Eleanor,’ C38, John Hope Franklin Papers.
  2. John Hope Franklin, ‘History- Weapon of War and Peace,’ Phylon, 5, (3rd Qtr.., 1944), pp.249-259.
  3. John Hope Franklin, ‘On The Evolution of Scholarship in Afro-American History’, reprinted in Franklin, Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), pp.49-58, p.52.
  4. John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes, (New York: Knopf, 1947), p.589.
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Thomas Cryer

Thomas Cryer (@ThomasOCryer) is a London Arts and Humanities Partnership-funded PhD student at University College London’s Institute of the Americas. His thesis explores racialisation, memory, and nationhood in the twentieth-century United States through the lens of the life, scholarship, and advocacy of the historian John Hope Franklin. His intellectual biography uses Franklin’s example to highlight history’s function as a vehicle of racial knowledge and underlines forms of anti-Black disciplinary violence and racialisation that disbarred, deradicalized, and contoured the thought of mid-twentieth-century Black historians. It also critically examines Franklin’s formulation of Southernism; investigates the reception, contestation, and re-invention of From Slavery to Freedom; and traces the rise and denouement of post-WWII racial liberalism through Franklin’s critical contributions to Brown v Board, the Kerner Report, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot, and President Clinton’s Commission on Race. He is an Events Editor for U.S. Studies Online, an Essays & Opinions editor for Stillpoint London, and a Research Affiliate with GIRES’s Greenwood Center for African American Studies. He will spend the summer of 2023 as a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress and will serve as a Graduate Representative for the Southern Historical Association from Fall 2023. Currently, he is undertaking research at the John Hope Franklin Papers at Duke University funded by the Rubenstein Library’s John Hope Franklin Travel Award, an EAAS Transatlantic Study Grant, and an Institute of the Americas Postgraduate Travel Grant. Prior to his PhD, he studied for a BA(Hons) and an MPhil in American History at the University of Cambridge, working under Professors Andrew Preston and Gary Gerstle. He has served on roundtables discussing history and policy for the Ditchley Foundation and the Salzburg Global Seminar and has written for the Australian Journal of American Studies, Reviews in History, U.S. Studies Online, the LSE Review of Books and LSE’s American Politics and Policy Blog.