John Hope Franklin, the most preeminent and pioneering scholar of African-American history, died Wednesday at the age of 94. As a historian, Franklin’s long life bore witness to many of the most important moments in the history of race relations in the United States. The grandson of a slave, he was born and raised in Rentiesville, Oklahoma where his father’s law office was burned down during the horrific Tulsa Race Riots of 1921. Franklin’s experiences of race hatred informed his studies at the historically black Fisk University. In 1947 he authored “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans,” which is still heralded today as the authoritative text on the subject.
Not content in merely chronicling black history, Franklin continued to actively participate in helping make it as his scholarly work bolstered arguments against segregation in the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v Board of Education. During the Civil Rights Movement, Franklin participated in the 1965 march for voting rights. Throughout his career, Franklin broke down numerous race barriers by becoming the first African-American department chair at Brooklyn College in addition to being the first African-American president of the American Historical Society.
He, of course, lived long enough to see the election of President Barack Obama, a moment he described as “one of the most historic moments, if not the most historic moment, in this history of this country.” With Obama holding the highest office, it’s especially important to look back at the history Franklin has charted. In the above video, he speaks about the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 that was the only coup d’etat in the history of the U.S. The riot was instigated, in part, because racist whites couldn’t stand the idea of blacks holding office in the South.