John Hope Franklin
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Editor’s note: They Did It First is The Root’s new weekly series on trailblazing people and events in the history of black America.

Who was the first (and only) historian to have an orchid named for him?

It certainly wasn’t his only “first,” but it was his most unusual. Revered historian John Hope Franklin, the author of the seminal work From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, left his mark on, of all things, orchid culture. He and his wife, Aurelia Whittington Franklin, collected and cultivated orchids in their own home greenhouses throughout their 58-year marriage. In 1976 a hybrid orchid was named in his honor, Phalaenopsis John Hope Franklin. In 1999, upon his wife’s passing, a South Carolina greenhouse named one for her as well: Phalaenopsis Aurelia Franklin.

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John Hope Franklin would have been 100 years old this year. Born in the all-black town of Rentiesville, Okla., on Jan. 2 in the year of Booker T. Washington’s death, 1915—a half-century after the end of the Civil War—Franklin lived to see and support the candidacy and election of our nation’s first black president. Ironically, much of the research for From Slavery to Freedom (1947), now in its ninth edition (2010) and rewritten by Harvard’s Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, was conducted in segregated libraries where Franklin was prohibited from using the bathroom.

During his career he would author more than 20 books. Franklin fell in love with the study of history at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. After graduating magna cum laude from Fisk in 1935, he was admitted to Harvard University’s graduate history program, the first African American from a historically black institution to enter directly. Although Franklin was a Ph.D. and a published author by 1943, institutional racism remained fierce, and the U.S. War Department refused to hire him as a historian, selecting less-qualified white applicants instead.

A professor at several historically black colleges between 1936 and 1956, Franklin refused every offer he received to become dean or president of academic institutions. Not so with history-department chairmanships. In 1956 he became the first African-American department chair at a predominantly white institution when he took the helm of the all-white, 52-member history department of Brooklyn College in New York City. From 1967 to 1970 he served as the first African-American chair of the University of Chicago’s history department. Franklin was also the first African American to head a number of professional organizations, including the Southern Historical Association (1970-1971). In fact, in 1949, two decades before his presidency there, he became the first African American to present a paper at its segregated conference, hosted that year in Williamsburg, Va.

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In 1982 Franklin was named the James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke University in Durham, N.C., the first African American to hold an endowed chair there. While he acknowledged his special responsibilities as an African-American scholar, he believed that African-American history was not a separate discipline from American history but a part of it, and in 1969 he famously turned down the chairmanship of Harvard’s newly formed Afro-American-studies department on this basis.

Franklin’s fight for civil rights took place in classrooms and courtrooms and on the street. While at Fisk, he spearheaded protests against the lynching of a local black man and sent letters decrying the horrific practice to both the mayor of Nashville and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He served as an expert witness in the 1949 lawsuit that led to the desegregation of the University of Kentucky’s graduate school. In 1953, while teaching at Howard University, Franklin helped document the historical portion of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s brief in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1965 he marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. In 2003, as both expert witness and plaintiff, he testified in a lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma, seeking reparations for the survivors and descendants of the victims of the Tulsa Race Riot.

During his career he received more than 200 awards and honorary degrees. In 1995 alone, in its first of many tributes to him, Duke University established the John Hope Franklin Collection of African and African American Documentation; the Fisk Alumni Association granted him its first W.E.B. Du Bois Award; the NAACP bestowed upon him its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal; and President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Clinton also appointed Franklin in 1997 to lead his President’s Initiative on Race. 

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John Hope Franklin died at the age of 94 on March 25, 2009, two months after President Obama’s inauguration. A fighter for civil rights and a renowned scholar throughout his life, he lived through a century of both seismic shifts and stifling stagnation in black-white race relations in the United States. It might be said that he approached his orchids with the same open eyes and open mind that he did history. “One thing about coming into the greenhouse every day,” he said in an interview with C-SPAN in 2006: “You see something today that you didn’t see yesterday.”