A stretch of Interstate 85 in Durham, N.C., has been named for the trailblazing black historian John H. Franklin, who directly confronted America’s racist history and helped shaped the discourse around America’s legacy of slavery. The stretch of road was dedicated to the influential scholar Monday afternoon at the Hayti Heritage Center.
As the Raleigh News and Observer notes, Franklin’s name on a Southern roadway, which will now be called Dr. John H. Franklin Highway, is significant, particularly in North Carolina. It wasn’t that long ago when visitors and residents entering the Tar Heel State were confronted with a welcome sign from the Ku Klux Klan.
Franklin, who died in 2009, was described by fellow historian Nell Irvin Painter as “the first great American historian to reckon the price [America] owed in violence, autocracy and militarism.”
Franklin meticulously documented African-American history. In 1947 he published From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, described in his New York Times obituary as “one of the definitive historical surveys of the American black experience” and by Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert W. Fogel as “a landmark in the interpretation of American civilization.”
The former Duke University professor was among the first American scholars to confront the hypocrisy of America’s ideals against its history of white supremacy. In one of his final works, a 2007 article for the Atlantic Monthly, Franklin wrote that “if the American idea was to fight every war from the beginning of colonization to the middle of the 20th century with Jim Crow armed forces, in the belief that this would promote the American idea of justice and equality, then the American idea was an unmitigated disaster and a denial of the very principles that this country claimed as its rightful heritage.”
As the Times wrote, Franklin earned many “firsts” throughout his storied career. He was the first black president of the American Historical Association and the first black person to present a paper at the Southern Historical Association, which was segregated at the time (the group later elected him as its president). He was also the first black professor to serve as department chair in a majority-white institution (Brooklyn College).
Franklin also applied his gifts as a scholar to the fight for civil rights, working on Thurgood Marshall’s legal team in the Brown v. Board of Education case, the landmark Supreme Court case that struck down “separate but equal” schooling in 1954. For his contributions, Franklin received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from Bill Clinton in 1995.
Franklin was originally from Oklahoma, but North Carolina became his adopted home state.
“Durham and the entire state of North Carolina were blessed to become his home,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said of Franklin. “He wielded history as a tool.”
Read more at the Raleigh News and Observer.