John Hope Franklin

Our view: A historian whose writings helped remake America

March 27, 2009

John Hope Franklin, the great black historian who died Wednesday at the age of 94, brought to the study of history an expansive vision of the past that helped change the way America saw itself.

Mr. Franklin grew up in an era when conventional wisdom held that African-Americans had no history worth speaking of. Since only human beings can live in history, denying that African-Americans had a history was a way of denying their humanity.

Throughout his life, Mr. Franklin worked to redress such historical myopia. Benjamin Quarles, Mr. Franklin's great colleague and contemporary at Morgan State University, once observed that African-American history was inseparable from American history, part of the "warp and woof" of our common heritage. Through his distinguished writings, Mr. Franklin surely spun many of the most brilliant threads in that colorful tapestry.

At a book signing on the Washington Mall a couple of years ago, Mr. Franklin recounted some of his experiences as a young historian doing research in small-town Southern libraries and town halls, where he was often confronted with the countless indignities of a segregated society that forced him to work in separate reading rooms or denied him access to cafeterias and water fountains because of his race.

He recounted these incidents without bitterness or rancor, though one sensed his fierce resistance to these assaults on his character and integrity.

Yet somehow he never lost his belief that the musty, long-forgotten documents he unearthed with such patient dedication eventually would reveal truths too incontestable to ignore. His greatness lay in his understanding of history not as a dry, abstract academic discipline but as the faithful guardian of its subjects' deepest humanity.

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