NYT singles out John Hope Franklin for front-page treatment in Week in Review





When he was a boy in segregated Oklahoma, where he was born in 1915, John Hope Franklin used to indulge in a subversive bit of wordplay like a small act of public and private theater.

“My mother and I used to have a game we’d play on our public,” Dr. Franklin said not long ago, his voice full of artful pauses, words pulled out like taffy. “She would say if anyone asks you what you want to be when you grow up, tell them you want to be the first Negro president of the United States. And just the words were so far-fetched, so incredible that we used to really have fun, just saying it.”

Even in a country where the far-fetched, for better and for worse, so often becomes reality, few historians achieved the stature, both as scholars and as moral figures — and as combinations of the two — that Dr. Franklin did. When he died last week, at the age of 94, an American epoch seemed to vanish with him.

Dr. Franklin was first and foremost a major historian, whose landmark book, “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans,” first published in 1947, was a comprehensive survey that sold more than three million copies. The book also permanently altered the ways in which the American narrative was studied.

“What distinguishes his history or historiography is that he, like few other historians, wrote a book that transformed the way we understand a major social phenomenon,” said David Levering Lewis, the New York University historian, who like Dr. Franklin studied under Theodore Currier at Fisk University in Nashville.

“When you think of ‘From Slavery to Freedom,’ there’s before and there’s after, there’s the world before and then we have a basic paradigm shift,” he said. “Before him you had a field of study that had been feeble and marginalized, full of a pretty brutal discounting of the impact of people of color. And he moved it into the main American narrative. It empowered a whole new field of study.”...

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