Interview with Dr. John Hope Franklin

By Purnell, Brian | The Journal of African American History, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Interview with Dr. John Hope Franklin


Purnell, Brian, The Journal of African American History


INTRODUCTION

In 2007 we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the first edition of From Slavery to Freedom (FSTF), John Hope Franklin's groundbreaking synthesis that introduced African Americans' narrative history to millions of people throughout the world. Over the years the book has received countless accolades from historians, other scholars, and the public. In a brilliant discussion of the book's treatment of women and gender, Darlene Clark Hine, the influential historian of the South and African American women's history, praised the book as "the Bible of Black History ... as much a historical document and artifact as it is a history of our civilization." Columbia University historian Eric Foner acknowledged that FSTF "has introduced generations of students, as well as readers outside the academy, to the richness and drama of the African American experience, as well as making plain why no account of American history can be complete that does not accord African Americans a central role." The impact and significance of this work secures John Hope Franklin's legacy as a historian who fundamentally altered the way Americans know their nation's past. (1)

After reading John Hope Franklin's autobiography, Mirror to America, which contains a chapter on Franklin's experience writing FSTF, I grew curious to learn more about the origins and evolution of his most famous book. In large part, I wanted to study the history of FSTF and gain insight into how African American history developed as a distinct and respected scholarly field within American history. I began this project with a foray into Duke University's Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library, which holds the John Hope Franklin Papers. I hoped research in that collection would uncover documents that went beyond Dr. Franklin's chapter in his autobiography in explaining why he wrote From Slavery to Freedom, why Alfred Knopf, Inc., published it, and how the book's content and historians perception of it changed over time.

John Hope Franklin's papers certainly contained fascinating sources, but besides a vertical file of book reviews and promotional flyers announcing new editions of FSTF, there were few materials that covered the book's origins and evolution. (2) A breakthrough occurred when Karen Jean Hunt, director of the Franklin Research Center, encouraged me to schedule an appointment with Dr. Franklin and to speak with him about my research project. At first, the idea of interviewing John Hope Franklin made me nervous. I didn't feel that I had read enough of Franklin's work to conduct a proper interview with him, and I thought there would be no way one of the most prominent historians in the country could make time for me, an extremely junior historian barely one year removed from his dissertation defense. Still, how many times does one get to interview John Hope Franklin? Excitement over the chance to spend time with a legendary historian outweighed my lack of confidence in my meager scholarly record.

I took Karen Jean Hunt's advice and thanks to her, Dr. Franklin agreed to meet me during the last week I was in Durham. I had enough time to finish research in Franklin's papers and quickly study some of his other essays and monographs. I devoured The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860 (1943), Dr. Franklin's first published book, which contained many themes regarding the social position of minorities in democratic societies that appeared in his second book, From Slavery to Freedom. Duke's rare books library held a copy of the first edition of FSTF, and I selectively read it during the days leading up to my appointment. I was familiar with the seventh edition of FSTF, which I had read a decade earlier. To my mind, the first edition read like a completely different book. I remembered the seventh edition's prose as rather wooden and weighed down by specific names and dates. The first edition's narrative, on the other hand, was lively and exciting, and the book read more like a trade book than a textbook. …

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