The Early Scholarship of John Hope Franklin

John Hope Franklin
John Hope Franklin

The famed European historian, A.J.P. Taylor, remarked that “nothing is inevitable until it happens.” John Hope Franklin, who throughout a career as a professional historian that lasted over fifty years did more than any other scholar to make African American history an essential component of the nation’s history, did not set out to write histories of black people. During the 1930s, while a graduate student at Harvard University, Franklin wanted to distinguish himself as an historian, plain and simple, not as a Negro historian. He rejected invitations in graduate school to write papers on African Americans. As he writes in his autobiography, Mirror to America, for his dissertation he wanted to write on, “a non-Negro subject and compete with the students on material where it was not perceived that I had some inherent advantage.” Objectivity, meticulous research, scrupulous analysis of primary sources, and exhaustive knowledge of historical literature: adherence to these best practices would ensure the young historian’s rise despite the limitations his society placed on his color and class. Franklin toyed with the idea of writing a dissertation on British and American diplomatic relations, but since he was so poor (he could not finance his first year in graduate school without a $500 loan from his undergraduate mentor at Fisk University, Theodore S. Currier; without working at least two jobs; and without a loan from the university) funding overseas research was impossible.

Eventually, Franklin chose to write a dissertation on free blacks in North Carolina. The subject was virtually unexplored. Still, Franklin initially saw himself as a historian of the U.S. South, not as an expert in Negro history. For his next book, he wanted to study the South’s militant culture. His research into this subject was interrupted when Roger A. Shugg, an editor from Knopf, invited Franklin to write a synthesis text on African American history. At first, Franklin balked at what he saw as a distraction from his scholarly agenda. Perhaps he also worried about being pigeon-holed as a black scholar who writes about black people. Such a concern may seem troubling, even strange to contemporary, scholars. Since the 1960s, with the ascendency of social history and the importance of African American history firmly established, historians – black and white – take personal, professional and even political pride in their identities as scholars of the black past.

Not so with Professor Franklin. As a product of Jim Crow America, and a black man too, Franklin’s ambition to become the very best in his chosen profession, a profession dominated by whites and tinged with racism, anti-Semitism, and class snobbery born of cliquish mores, made him stand out, no matter what he did. If he became an expert in Negro history would other historians take him seriously as an American historian? Would the racism in the nation and the historical profession during the 1930s recognize African American history as a legitimate area of research? Would Franklin receive invitations to present papers at premier scholarly organizations? Would he be able to rise as far as his talents and ambitions could take him; or would he become the black scholar who writes about black subjects and teaches black students at black institutions? Which was the best way for Franklin to advance a cause for human equality and justice? Since Franklin wanted to use his professional accomplishments to challenge destructive, unjust racism in America, would writing a book on African American history hurt, or help that goal?

John Hope Franklin and Aurelia Whittington Franklin
John Hope Franklin and Aurelia Whittington Franklin

John Hope Franklin’s wife, Aurelia Whittington, gave him the moral and financial support he needed to accept Shugg’s invitation. He delayed his research on the South’s militant culture, took an unpaid leave from teaching, moved to D.C., and researched and wrote what would become From Slavery to Freedom, a book that became the definitive text on African American history of the twentieth century.

When he began the project that shaped so much of his career, Franklin saw himself as a newcomer to the field of African American history. “I knew very little African American history,” he told me during an oral history interview. “I never had a course on it. I have yet had a course in it, and I was sort of teaching myself as I was going along, which I thought was something of an asset because I had no preconceived notions of what it ought to be, no preconceived views of what it should be like, and I tended therefore to put it in a framework of American history generally. I had no axe to grind, you see, no cause to advance. I was tabula rasa. Whatever I found was alright with me.” For Franklin, this was an ideal position. He approached the subject as a professional historian first, and a black man second. This separation of his personal and his professional approach was very important to Franklin. It gave him the freedom to pursue the scholarly record wherever it took him and to uncover a powerful history of black people’s presence in all aspects of the nation’s past.

Still, it is worth thinking about how Franklin, a self-described novice to the field of African American history, became the twentieth century’s most venerable and active scholar of this field. Some clues to the origins of Franklin’s clear interpretation of African American history as a significant, serious subfield of American history, lie in his early scholarship.

In one of Franklin’s early published scholarly articles, a study of James Boon, a free Negro carpenter in North Carolina during the 1830s and 1840s, this non-specialist in African American history presented an analysis that would become a bedrock of the revolutionary movement for “new social history.” “The history of a nation,” John Hope Franklin wrote, “is to be found not only in the records of victorious battles or in the lives of the notable personages but also in the lives of the most humbly born, the most consistently despised, and the most miserably improvident.” Claiming that the seemingly lowest members of society – the nameless slaves, laborers, soldiers, women, immigrants, and dispossessed – played as significant role in the nation’s history as statesmen, generals, industrialists, and intellectuals was not only uncommon when Franklin published this article in 1945; it was ahead of its time by roughly two decades.

Certainly, others looked for history “from below” and uncovered narratives of slave revolts and common laborers. Franklin saw important connections between this history and the nation’s past, and he brought this perspective to his study of African American history. As Franklin wrote in its introduction, his first book, The Free Negro in North Carolina, uncovered, “another important step in the direction of understanding the relationship which exists between a minority group – in this instance, caste-like in its attributes – and the larger community.” Franklin’s early scholarship proved that, take away the stigma of race and color, and antebellum free blacks were every bit the equal of southern whites. But free blacks lived in a constant state of insecurity “when the laws and the community were equally determined to exterminate them in order to create a social system in which there would be no group whose very existence constituted a threat to the institution of slavery.” Looking back on this early work on free blacks in North Carolina, Franklin remarked how, “it was incredible that they were free. (…) no one wanted to be responsible for bringing out the story that in the slave period there were large numbers of free blacks. (…) That history would have shown that blacks were capable of being free and of functioning in a society as free people when slavery was a dominant status for them, and as long as we keep that quiet, the better it is.” For Franklin, scrupulous, meticulous historical research had the power to debunk lies that maintained blacks were no better than beasts of burden in the past, and no better than second class citizens in the present.

In addition to a fresh approach to social history, Franklin also had deep concerns about how ideas reflected and shaped their times. His first published essay on the novelist Edward Bellamy examines the origins, development, high points and decline of the late-nineteenth century United States Nationalist movement. Franklin never identified personally with utopian socialism, but he believed in universal human decency, and that neither class nor race should stigmatize citizens into permanently lower social, economic or political status. What began as an original piece of scholarship (Franklin tracked down Bellamy’s widow through her town’s postmaster, wrote her out-of-the-blue to express his research interest in her husband’s literary and political activities, and gained access to his unpublished diaries and papers) eventually bore Franklin’s unique interpretation regarding the history of American social inequality and possible solutions for these enduring national problems. “The Nationalist movement emerged as another effort, distinctly American, to cope with the problems the American people faced,” Franklin argued. “While all these movements were flavored with traits typically American – imagination, enthusiasm, determination – Nationalism was one of the few which made conscious effort to reconcile peacefully an unreasonable capitalist class to an embittered laboring class. There is small wonder, then, that its appeal was so extensive and its ideals were believed by so many to be within the realm of possibility.” For John Hope Franklin, history showed that Americans had tried to fix inequities inherited from the past. That they had been unsuccessful did not discount their significance; nor did it preclude the possibilities of social change in the present.

Regarding Bellamy’s famous novel, Looking Backward, Franklin concluded that “the wide interest in the doctrines embodied in the book was the signal for a movement whose influence was great – on Bellamy and its adherents alike – and which formed one of the advance guards of liberal thought in the last decade of the nineteenth century.” Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom achieved a similar accomplishment, not when it first appeared in 1947, but certainly twenty years later, when social movements for civil rights and black power created massive demand for new interpretations of the nation’s past, especially concerning African American history. When the nation caught up to Franklin’s view of its past, his book was available. The central interpretation of From Slavery to Freedom – that African American history was distinctly American history, and vice versa, that one could never understand the nation’s past without a clear, sober, comprehensive, objective understanding of black people’s experience in the United States – paved the way for African American history as a serious and dynamic subfield of American history. John Hope Franklin did not set out to write “the Bible of Black history,” but his early scholarship reveals the analyses and interpretations that made Franklin an ideal historian for this task.

Franklin’s first essay on Bellamy showed how ideas about freedom and equality, even when they do not change political and economic reality, have deep historical significance for a nation shaped by social stigmatisms of racism and class. Franklin’s early scholarship on free blacks in the antebellum South argued that the history of minority populations, like free blacks in the South, revealed a great deal about the social limitations and possibilities inherent in general society. Franklin’s early historical work showed how free Negroes, a real anomaly in the antebellum period, eked out economic success and stability, and formed complicated relationships with whites and slaves. Their history, Franklin showed, “serves as a warning against the formulation of conclusions regarding societal relationships based entirely on theoretical formulas.” Franklin’s early work, indeed his entire scholarly oeuvre, indicates that racial theories of any kind fall apart when placed next to prudent, comprehensive, objective historical research.

Such ideas became a bedrock of African American history as a distinct research field. Franklin may not have set out to pioneer a new subfield of American history. He built upon the contributions of scholars who preceded him – George Washington Williams, W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson – but the field of African American history that we know today owes a great deal to John Hope Franklin’s principled, scrupulous approach to the nation’s past.

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