John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom was probably the first serious work of history that I ever read, somewhere around the sixth or seventh grade. I remember how impressed I with both his topic and the whole idea of writing history, of gathering evidence, of looking for causes and effects, and his broad argument, that the United States was capable of rising above its limitations, and creating a more just society. I know that reading From Slavery to Freedom inspired me to write, in the 7th grade, a long report on slavery in New York State—all I remember about it is that I loved writing the word “manumission.”
John Hope Franklin passed away yesterday, full of years and full of honors. I hope he won’t be honored for who he was—the first African American historian who was able to truly cross over into the mainstream white historical profession—than for what he wrote. His excellent biography of George Washington Williams was a tribute to his predecessors—Williams, Carter G. Woodson. A. A. Taylor, and even the great W.E.B. Du Bois–whose work and efforts were never really taken seriously by white historians. When studying at Harvard, his advisors tried to convince him not to write on black history, feeling that he might be too emotional to muster the requisite objectivity (this, and the knowledge that writing on black history would further marginalize a historian, writing on what was seen as a relatively minor topic of interest.) And the stories of difficulties he faced in researching in southern archives are legendary.
But in the end Franklin deserves to be remembered for what he wrote. And though he could be fierce, as when he served on President Clinton’s commission on race and angered a lot of people by arguing vociferously for the continuing relevance of racism, it is fitting that his last major public statement, after the election of Obama last November, that it was perhaps the greatest event in American history.
John Hope Franklin, like many African American intellectuals of his generation, believed that there was a path from slavery to freedom, and that emancipation in 1865 was only the beginning of the process. And that this process could only end in possible way; with African Americans as full American citizens, legally, socially, politically, and morally. If there is much that remains to be done with America’s sorry racial legacy, this barrier was perhaps permanently breached on November 4, 2008. And wonderful it was that one of America’s greatest historians, born on Jan 2, 1915, was alive to see it. American blacks had finally passed from slavery and its various post-1865 near facsimiles to freedom, a true unambiguous, freedom, unreturnable, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.