Participant-Observer of History: John Hope Franklin-Scholar, Mentor, and Promoter of African American Women's History

By Williams, Lillian Serece | The Journal of African American History, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Participant-Observer of History: John Hope Franklin-Scholar, Mentor, and Promoter of African American Women's History


Williams, Lillian Serece, The Journal of African American History


When Dr. John Hope Franklin died on 25 March 2009, the historical profession lost a true pioneer, a "historian's historian," and one of the most important scholars of the 20th century. For over 70 years, John Hope Franklin contributed major works to African American and American history, and the history of the U.S. South. Dr. Franklin achieved numerous "firsts" as an African American in his illustrious career including what he termed "the triple crown" as president of the three leading professional organizations--American Historical Association (AHA), the Organization of American Historians (OAH), and the Southern Historical Association (SHA).

I had the privilege of knowing and interacting with Dr. Franklin over the years in his capacity as mentor and educator, and his scholarship had a profound impact upon me and the research projects I undertook. I first met Dr. Franklin at the annual meeting of the AHA in Washington, DC, in 1969. I was a graduate student who was attending my first major professional conference. That experience was transformative for me and confirmed that I had carved out a niche in the academic world that would be quite satisfying. I was impressed by meeting all of those prominent historians and pleased that I was able to reconnect with Dr. Herbert Gutman for whom I had worked as an undergraduate research assistant and who encouraged me to pursue graduate studies at the University at Buffalo.

It was Dr. Gutman who introduced me to Dr. John Hope Franklin. I had become familiar with Dr. Franklin's work beginning with the high school text Land of the Free when I served on the Social Studies Textbook Review Committee for the Buffalo Board of Education. (1) At this meeting, Dr. Franklin was cordial and I was struck by his regal demeanor. Upon learning that I was a student at the University at Buffalo, he inquired about his friend Robert Lively, who was then chair of the Department of History. As I recall, the conversation centered on the history department, the Livelys, and the progress of my research projects. Always formal, Dr. Franklin addressed me as "Miss Williams" and continued to do so for many years. These brief meetings at professional conferences were important to me, for I appreciated the fact that Dr. Franklin seemed genuinely interested in my work, and was willing to discuss it and to mentor a young scholar who was not one of his already numerous students. It was common knowledge that he valued his role as mentor and embraced it wholeheartedly. And he continued his mentoring even after his "students" had become "seasoned scholars." I always appreciated his wise counsel. When Dr. Franklin finally addressed me as "Lillian," I felt that I had his seal of approval and I came to be considered a colleague. That was one of my most joyful days.

At an ASALH plenary session in Orlando. Florida, in October 2004, John Hope Franklin shared the challenges he faced as he was writing his autobiography Mirror to America. (2) He reminded the audience of historians and social scientists how important it is for us to take the time to record and preserve our personal histories and to document our activities. Many of us had been participant-observers in the civil rights and Black Power campaigns and were the first generation of African American scholars at many of the nation's leading universities. Some of us were the catalysts that brought curricular change to elementary and secondary education, and founded and staffed the newly created Black Studies programs and departments in colleges across the nation and we need to document these activities. John Hope Franklin paved the way by precept and by example in using his scholarship to transform the pre-collegiate and collegiate curricula nationwide.

Dr. Franklin was in a unique position to both observe and write about many of the major historical events of the 20th century. In many ways, he was a participant-observer from his childhood days in Oklahoma to the historic election of Senator Barack Obama to the presidency. …

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