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Civil Rights Activist, Historian Franklin Dies At 94


America has lost one of its preeminent scholars. Historian John Hope Franklin died yesterday at Duke Hospital, on the campus where he spent the last years of his life. He was 94 years old and the grandson of a slave. John Hope Franklin was among the first to document the full story of black America, all the while enduring the racism of his day.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: When John Hope Franklin was only six years old, he got his first taste of Jim Crow. A white conductor had kicked his family off a train in the Oklahoma countryside. He told me about that experience in a 2005 interview.

Dr. JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN (Historian): I was crying. And my mother said, what are you crying about? And I said, the man put us off the train. She said, oh, that? That shouldn't disturb you. He put you off the train because we were sitting where white people were supposed to sit and not where blacks were supposed to sit in a condition of humiliation. She said, but don't you fret about that. Don't you ever worry about that. You must spend your energy and time to prove to that man and to every other white person that you are as good as they are. And if you do that, you won't be crying. You'll be defying.

ELLIOTT: And defy he did, growing up to define the field of African-American history, play a key role in pivotal civil rights events of the 20th century and earn the nation's highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Franklin was born in the tiny, all-black town of Rentiesville, Oklahoma in 1915. New York University historian David Levering Lewis says his father, a lawyer, later moved to Tulsa, planning to bring the family for better opportunities.

Professor DAVID LEVERING LEWIS (History, New York University): That move was darkened by a race riot in Tulsa, the infamous Tulsa race riot of 1921.

ELLIOTT: His father's property was destroyed, and the family was separated for several years. Levering Lewis says the experience had a profound impact on how John Hope Franklin would challenge racism later in life. Franklin had intended to study law, but at Nashville's historically black Fisk University, the history chairman, Theodore Currier, convinced him otherwise and helped Franklin pay to pursue a graduate degree in history at Harvard. Even there, he faced racism.

Levering Lewis says Franklin was directed away from broader interests and pushed toward the study of race relations - not an easy field for a scholar of color.

Prof. LEVERING LEWIS: How do you gain entry to the archives in the South? How do you find access to university libraries on segregated white campuses? This was all quite daunting, and in Franklin's case, it was a challenge that he was fully ready to meet.

ELLIOTT: Franklin broke down many barriers in his lifetime. He was the first African-American chairman of a history department at a predominantly white college and the first black member of the exclusive Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. But his seminal work was the 1947 book "From Slavery to Freedom."

Professor SCOTT ELLSWORTH (History, University of Michigan): John Hope Franklin is a man who literally changed the way that Americans think of themselves.

ELLIOTT: That's University of Michigan history professor Scott Ellsworth, a friend and protege of Dr. Franklin.

Prof. ELLSWORTH: John Hope Franklin taught the American people sort of the missing chapters in our past. If you look at American history, and if all if you look at is what white people did, you know, you're going to get a story, but it's not going to be a true story. And what John Hope Franklin did is he brought this missing element - missing to many - of the African-American past, African-American contributions, and put that on the bookshelf equally, along with everything else that had been written.

ELLIOTT: Ellsworth is also an Oklahoma native, and he and Franklin served as lead scholars for the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. Franklin often used his scholarship in pursuit of racial equality. He worked on the Brown versus Board of Education school discrimination case. He marched for voting rights in Alabama. He pushed for reparations for what he called the burden of slavery, and he led President Bill Clinton's initiative on race.

Unidentified Narrator: The president of the United States of America awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to John Hope Franklin.

ELLIOTT: This Duke documentary highlights the 1995 ceremony.

President BILL CLINTON: John Hope Franklin, the son of the South, has always been a moral compass for America, always pointing us in the direction of truth.

ELLIOTT: On that trip to D.C., Franklin had a celebratory dinner at the Cosmos Club. As he was leaving, a white woman mistook him for the coat check clerk. It's a story he recounted at his 90th birthday party at Duke University, where he was a professor emeritus.

Dr. FRANKLIN: The person who wanted me to hang up her coat was saying to me your presence here is for one purpose only, and that's to serve me. What the hell are you're doing here if you're not here to serve me?

ELLIOTT: While Franklin could get angry about racism, he was never bitter and conducted himself with grace and dignity. On NPR in 2005, he explained his remarkable spirit.

Dr. FRANKLIN: Little by little, chip by chip, you can change things. If Michelangelo can make David out of a piece of marble, we might be able to make civilized human beings out of this vast quantity of human existence that we have before us. And I'm willing to keep on trying.

ELLIOTT: Franklin was an avid fisherman and orchid enthusiast and lived for years in Durham, North Carolina with his wife Aurelia, who passed away in 1999. He's survived by his son, John Whittington Franklin.

He lived to see the nation's first black president and called Barack Obama's election the closest thing to a peaceful revolution the country had ever seen.

Dr. FRANKLIN: I didn't think it would happen in my lifetime. My mother and I used have a little game we'd play. She would say if anyone asks 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.

ELLIOTT: President Obama said yesterday, quote, "Because of the life John Hope Franklin lived, the public service he rendered, we all have a richer understanding of who we are as Americans and our journey as a people."

As part of his 90th birthday celebration in 2005, the Fisk Jubilee singers from his alma mater paid tribute.

(Soundbite of song, "I Got Shoes")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I've got shoes,

Unidentified Group: (Singing) You've got shoes, all of God's children got shoes. When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes, gonna walk all over God's heaven, heaven, heaven, everybody talking 'bout heaven ain't going there, heaven, heaven. Gonna shout all over God's heaven.

ELLIOTT: John Hope Franklin, pioneering American scholar.

(Soundbite of song, "I Got Shoes")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) All God's children got...

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.