John Hope Franklin on an Obama Presidency


At age 93, John Hope Franklin remains a formidable force in the world of African-American history and scholarship. He wrote what is considered a core text in the field of African-American studies. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, first published in 1947 and now in itseighth edition, is still considered the definitive account of the black experience in America.


As he wrote it, in segregated libraries and archives where he could not use the restroom, Franklin could not have imagined what happened in this country two weeks ago—the day an African American became the presidential nominee of a major political party.

In a brief taped interview, Franklin, the university's James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History, reacted to Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy, calling the nomination "amazing."

Franklin reminisces about how his mother encouraged him as a youngster to tell people he wanted to become "the first Negro president of the United States." He says the phrase then seemed "so far-fetched, so incredible that we used to really have fun just saying it."

Franklin had already endorsed Obama in mid-April, saying he was impressed by Sen. Obama's ability to bring together people of different backgrounds and party affiliations.

"He has shown an ability to bridge the divides in our society and unite people behind his agenda for change," he said in his endorsement.

Franklin believes "bridging divides" is necessary to heal this country's deep racial wounds, and he has spent a good portion of his lifetime trying to achieve that goal. He chaired President Clinton's 1997 national advisory board on race and is revered as a "moral leader" of the historical profession for his engagement in the pressing issues of the day, his unflagging advocacy of civil rights and his gracious and courtly demeanor.


A life-long educator, Franklin will be honored later this month for his contributions and adherence to academic excellence during a two-day symposium featuring nationally recognized scholars at Duke and beyond.

The celebration is well-earned. Franklin has not only written about history but he's lived it, working on the Brown v. Board of Education case, marching on Washington in 1963, and in Selma in 1965 with Martin Luther King Jr. Most recently, he has taken on reparations.


Last year Franklin urged Congress to pass legislation that would clear the way for survivors of the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, one of the nation's worst race riots, to sue for reparations.

Viewers can soon catch a glimpse of his brilliance on the big screen in a small part for a film based on the novel Blood Done Signed My Name. The book is about the public lynching of a black man in a small N.C. town. Franklin plays the role of an older man who helps a group of men load a mule on a truck.


Thankfully for all of us, in his 10th decade, John Hope Franklin is not finished making history yet.

Camille Jackson is a writer in Duke University's Office of News & Communication.