John Hope Franklin and Black History in Transition

Article excerpt

During our very first conversation, which took place in 1974 at the Southern Historical Association meeting, John Hope Franklin and I discovered that we shared a mutual appreciation of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). John Hope Franklin's greatest debt was owed to the historically black colleges and universities that provided him an excellent education and his first employment opportunities. It was a debt he honored throughout his long and distinguished career. And, thus I begin this essay with a brief discussion of "Black History" at black colleges and universities because I began my teaching career at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Dr. Franklin also had spent much time teaching and researching in the black colleges and universities, and following his death in March 2009, I contacted William C. Hine, my coauthor of The African American Odyssey and professor of African American History at South Carolina State University, for information about John Hope Franklin's relationship with that black land-grant institution.

William Hine reported that in 2005 Franklin had delivered the commencement address and that it had been his second commencement speech at S.C. State. Forty-five years earlier Dr. Franklin had addressed the graduating class of 1960. Black History had been taught and addressed at South Carolina State since 1897 when a student at the then Colored Normal, Industrial, and Mechanical College commencement ceremonies, Ella Robinson, discussed "The Negro in History," and another read a paper on "Frederick Douglass," who had died two years earlier. According to Hine, an impressive series of Black History events, lectures, celebrations, and courses had informed S.C. State's intellectual culture. At the 1935 celebration of "Negro History Week," the dean of Arts and Sciences, Kirkland W. Green, poignantly asked, "What kind of gospel can a minister preach to a congregation of lynchers'?" Green insisted that Christianity should be respected at home before missionaries are dispatched to propagate it abroad, and eloquently concluded,

  The Negro has traveled through four hundred years of American
  history amidst thorns of torture, ridicule, scorn, degradation, and
  shame. These thorns have torn his flesh and wounded his soul.
  Bathed in blood and tears, he prayed and sang for the coming of a
  new day when he would come into his own, into possession of his
  birthright, freedom, recognition and a man's chance--the right to
  live his best self and to fulfill his God given mission. Millions
  waited for that day and died. (1)

William Hine concluded, "John Hope Franklin did not invent [the field of] African American history, ... but John Hope Franklin taught that history. He wrote that history. And he changed that history. For that we cart be ever grateful." (2)

John Hope Franklin left a rich body of work and a bank of wonderful memories. And there is more for which we can be forever grateful, and that is the existence of an infrastructure of 105 historically black institutions of higher learning that educate annually approximately 300,000 students. According to a 2004 survey of the U.S. Department of Education, "While HBCUs enroll barely 15 percent of African American undergraduates, they award 28 percent of the bachelor's degrees." Additionally, black colleges grant 15 percent of the master's degrees, and 9 percent of the doctoral degrees earned by African American graduate students. (3) Many of these institutions have modest enrollments and meager or "invisible" endowments, and they are plagued by accreditation issues and enrollment challenges. Yet, their enormous contributions to the transformation of American society, to the development of new cadres of scholars--especially the leading black women intellectuals of the last quarter of the 20th century--suggest an importance that far exceeds their number. It would be well worthwhile for predominantly white institutions and historically black institutions to organize a series of "summits" involving both groups in the educational complex of the United States so that everyone could fully appreciate and understand the value of HBCUs in both the training of future scholars and the generation of new knowledge, paradigms, and perspectives that fueled the recent transformations in arts and humanities in the academy. …