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John Hope Franklin pioneered field of African American history

Dr. John Hope Franklin worked under several presidents and worked on the Brown vs. Board of Education case.

Atoyia Deans | Times

Dr. John Hope Franklin worked under several presidents and worked on the Brown vs. Board of Education case.

John Hope Franklin, the world-renowned African American historian who made St. Petersburg his winter home, died Wednesday (March 25, 2009) in North Carolina. He was 94.

Dr. Franklin was mourned by scholars and historians, civil rights leaders and politicians, including President Barack Obama.

"Because of the life John Hope Franklin lived, the public service he rendered, and the scholarship that was the mark of his distinguished career, we all have a richer understanding of who we are as Americans and our journey as a people," Obama said in a statement. "Dr. Franklin will be deeply missed, but his legacy is one that will surely endure."

He also will be missed by those he befriended in St. Petersburg — a place Dr. Franklin called a Garden of Eden.

Even though he spent only a month a year here, he made a lasting mark.

A history professorship at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg is named after him. He also led annual discussions at Eckerd College.

On the national stage, Dr. Franklin played a pivotal role in school desegregation in the 1950s. He served under several U.S. presidents and frequently testified in Congress.

He was a distinguished Duke University professor who also had taught at Harvard and the University of Chicago.

Dr. Franklin also was a prolific author and wrote the classic text From Slavery to Freedom about African-Americans' contributions to the country.

He died of congestive heart failure at a Durham, N.C., hospital, a spokesman said.

He hadn't been to St. Petersburg in nearly a year because of his health, friends said.

But his death will leave a gap in the community he first adopted in the 1980s.

• • •

Dr. Franklin was accustomed to people wanting to learn everything he knew.

Wherever he went, he was peppered with questions, invitations, requests for speeches.

Dr. Franklin didn't mind. And he always made time.

"We could talk about anything with him," said Leo Nussbaum, who recruited him to lead the discussions at Eckerd. "He would talk easily about any issue. We learned so much from him."

Dr. Franklin, an Oklahoma native, grew up in an all black community.

His mother, a schoolteacher, had a profound influence on him, and began taking him to school when he was 3. Soon, he became aware of a "racial divide separating me from white America."

His family lost everything in the Tulsa race riot of 1921 in which more than 40 people, mostly blacks, died.

He graduated from Fisk University, a historically black college. He earned both a master's and a doctorate from Harvard.

Dr. Franklin went on to become a pioneer historian who broke the color line at several universities.

He also provided research that helped Thurgood Marshall win the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, which outlawed school segregation.

"I think he felt like he was a witness — a witness to the 20th century, both the good and the bad. And he took that responsibility seriously," said Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at USF. "He really invented African-American history as a field. It was like knowing Gandhi."

In 1997, Dr. Franklin chaired President Bill Clinton's Initiative on Race after getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom a few years earlier. He collected more than 100 honorary degrees.

He was the first black to chair a department at a predominantly white university, the first black to chair an endowment at Duke, the American Historical Association's first black president.

"This remarkable, legendary man will be sorely missed, but his contributions to our understanding of history will last forever," said Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry.

• • •

Dr. Franklin made many friends in St. Petersburg since he began visiting in 1982. His visits began after a friend recommended the area.

"He told me about this place, this Garden of Eden," Dr. Franklin told the Times two years ago. "I came and I came and came again for 20-odd years. I look forward to this every year."

Despite all his accomplishments, Nussbaum said, his friend stayed modest.

"He had a world perspective to a considerable degree," he said. "He was really a world citizen."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Dr. John Hope Franklin

Born: Jan. 2, 1915, in Rentiesville, Okla.

Education: A.B., Fisk University, 1935; M.A., Harvard University, 1936; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1941

Early career: Began as an instructor at Fisk in 1936 and taught at St. Augustine's and North Carolina College for Negroes (now N.C. Central University); 1947, published From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, still considered the definitive account of the black experience in America; early 1950s, worked on the Brown vs. Board of Education case

Honors: The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a U.S. civilian can receive, 1995; NAACP Spingar Medal, 1995; named "Historian of the Century'' by Duke University, North Carolina State and University of North Carolina, 1996; appointed chairman of President Bill Clinton's Initiative on Race, 1997; more than 130 honorary degrees

John Hope Franklin pioneered field of African American history 03/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 1:01pm]
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