John Hope Franklin for me will forever be associated with the third edition of From Slavery to Freedom (1967), which I bought in August 1971 in New York City for all of $2.00 (list price was $3.45). (1) I was about to start my first full-time job in the United States at the University of Michigan-Flint and was trying to select books for my various courses, including a survey of African American history. The 700 plus page paperback had a plain black cover with white writing. I eventually did not use it as a required text, largely because I thought its length too much for my somewhat hurried one-semester survey. Over the years, though, I did assign various parts of it as required reading. I also continued to use that 1971 purchase as a sort of ready reference. Although I have some more recent editions of this book, somehow the 1971 purchase, pages now crumbling, has remained my "Franklin of first resort." Perhaps this is simply because it is the version that I carefully underlined and annotated. This book has remained the main basis for my evaluation of John Hope Franklin, though several times over the years I also used his Reconstruction After the Civil War as required reading for my survey course. (2)
I did not know John Hope Franklin personally and had only limited exposure to him. I believe I heard him speak once on his biography of George Washington Williams. At the time he had been working on it for many years and it was still some years away from publication. I watched him being interviewed on television in his later years. I believe that someone may once have briefly introduced me to him, but this was merely a perfunctory act of courtesy.
His book struck me as encyclopedic in scope and magisterial in tone. I thought I saw in it a Booker T. Washingtonian quality, which allowed him to win the respect of a young product of the 1960s like myself, while obviously winning the love and support of the mostly white historical establishment. I thought I saw in the book clear evidence of his early education, culminating in his bachelor's from Fisk University (also the alma mater of W. E. B. Du Bois.). Carter G. Woodson famously complained, and justifiably so, that too many of the African American schools of the segregated era either did not teach African American history at all, or did so through the interpretation of the "highly educated, but mis-educated." (3) Yet my feeling is that when the subject was taught well in the segregated schools, it was with a warmth, depth, sobriety, and honesty that I thought I saw in Franklin's book.
Franklin started with a comprehensive survey of the achievements of ancient and precolonial Africa that was very much in the mainstream of pioneer 19th- and early 20th-century historians from around the African Diaspora. These included just about everybody from professionally trained historians such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson to a host of serious amateurs such as J. A. Rogers, John Edward Bruce, and Arthur Schomburg. (4) It included race activists from David Walker to Marcus Garvey. There...