John Hope Franklin's Troubled Tenure at Howard University, 1947-1956

By Williams, Yohuru R. | Negro History Bulletin, July-December 1998 | Go to article overview

John Hope Franklin's Troubled Tenure at Howard University, 1947-1956


Williams, Yohuru R., Negro History Bulletin


In the spring 1994, I had the opportunity to participate in the taping of a PBS special in honor of the life and work of historian John Hope Franklin. A mixed group of graduate and undergraduate history majors from Howard University was selected to query him about his distinguished career. The taping, however, was not without controversy. Franklin, who served as a respected and well-liked member of Howard University's history department from 1947 to 1956, remained very critical of the University long after his departure. His candid comments, especially regarding the university's administration, led some to believe that he was bitter about his tenure there. In fact, the roots of his disagreements with Howard University were largely philosophical and stemmed from Franklin's own ideas about the way in which universities should function.

Franklin developed his ideas about education early on in life. He was born in Rentiesville, Oklahoma in 1915; his earliest influences were his parents. His father, an attorney, and his mother, a school teacher, inculcated him with a respect for the value of education and the importance of maintaining high standards. Most of all, they taught him not to allow anything to stand in the way of achieving his dreams. Wishing to follow in his fathers foot steps, Franklin initially viewed college as a "necessary obstacle standing between me and law school." While attending Fisk University, he endeavored to take only those classes that would prepare him for a career as a lawyer.(1)

In college, Franklin greatly expanded his interest in education. During his freshman year, he enrolled in a course entitled "Contemporary Civilizations," which featured a number of impressive instructors including E. Franklin Frazier, Bertram Doyle, and a young dynamic professor Theodore Currier. Currier had a unique oratorical style that appealed to the college student. Despite being one of the youngest professors on staff, Currier did not need to consult lecture notes. He delivered passionate lectures to his students exhorting them to open up their minds to history.(2)

Professor Currier inspired young Franklin, in his sophomore year, to take a class in United States history. Over the course of the term, Franklin became mare and more drawn to the study of history. Currier encouraged this interest in him. As Franklin later explained, "Professor Currier was the most stunning lecturer I had ever heard. He had the most scintillating mind that I had ever come in contact with and he was a most stimulating person." After Franklin declared history as his major, Currier took him under his wing and helped to prepare him for graduate studies. "He became kind of a drill master for me," Franklin remembered. "He insisted that l write papers and that l do research.(3)

Franklin's training under Currier left an indelible imprint on him not only as a historian but as a person. He graduated at the top of his class and was accepted to attend graduate school at Harvard University. This was Depression-era America, however, and his parents had fallen on hard times. Franklin feared that he would never be able to finance his studies. He confided these things to Currier, who immediately arranged a loan for him at one the banks in Nashville. Young Franklin was overwhelmed by the gesture, which reinforced his commitment to become an educator. He left college with a deep commitment to the twin pillars of academia, research and teaching. Deeply grateful for the attention that Currier showed him, Franklin only criticized his gracious benefactor for perhaps giving his best students the most attention. Franklin resolved that when he became a teacher, "I would give equal attention to run of the mill students."(4)

In short order, Franklin graduated from Harvard with a M.A. and Ph.D. in United States history. He began a brief tenure at the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham--now North Carolina Central University--where he immediately put into practice his ideas about education. …

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