John Hope Franklin
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

Franklin

In the late summer of 1931, JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN (1915–2009) left his native Oklahoma for Nashville, Tennessee, home of Fisk University, alma mater of W.E.B. DuBois, John Wesley Work III and Jimmy Lunceford, among other black persons of renown. The teenager thought he’d become a lawyer like his father but classes with a brilliant and charismatic history professor, Theodore Currier (who, like about half of Fisk’s faculty, was white) changed that. Two other events sharply defined Franklin’s undergraduate years: meeting his fellow student and future wife, Aurelia Whittington; and the December 15, 1933 lynching of Cordie Cheek, kidnapped from a Fisk-owned house just hours after a grand jury declined to indict him for allegedly assaulting a white girl. In 1936, when Franklin was accepted to but denied a scholarship from Harvard, Professor Currier took a $500 bank loan, gave Franklin the money, and off he went. The investment was sound and Franklin’s first book, based on his Harvard thesis, The Free Negro in North Carolina: 1790-1860, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1943 — even though UNC itself wouldn’t admit black graduate students until 1951; nor black undergrads until 1955. Franklin’s second book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes, was published in 1947, the same year its author began teaching at Howard University. Franklin’s next position was literally — shockingly — front-page news: “Negro Educator Chosen to Head Department at Brooklyn College” announced the February 16, 1956 New York Times. (Bottom of the fold but still.)

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Todd Haynes, Roger Miller, Isaac Asimov.

READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).

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Historian, journalist, and poet Brian Berger is coeditor of New York Calling. He has written for many publications, a few of which even still exist.