Remembering John Hope Franklin: Scholar, teacher, advocate, friend

March 26, 2009Duke Law News

March 26, 2009 — During an interview last fall, John Hope Franklin pointed out that he kept a constant souvenir of his tenure on the Duke Law School faculty: a damaged finger, broken while rushing to get to a faculty meeting and never properly set. “It was a very important meeting,” he joked, explaining why he never went to see a doctor for the injury.

Franklin, the James B. Duke Emeritus Professor of History at Duke University, spoke more seriously about how teaching constitutional history from 1985 to 92 contributed to his development as a scholar. “My own education would have been incomplete without the experience of teaching in a law school,” said the renowned historian who died March 25 at the age of 94. “It meant that much to me in telling me how to approach history. I found there was an enormous connection [between] the path of the law and history.”

Franklin taught at the Law School after retiring from Duke University’s Trinity College, and well after establishing himself as one of the country’s preeminent historians. Franklin was the first to fully chronicle African-American history in the United States with his 1947 epic, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. He had lived much of the history he wrote about, from his upbringing in segregated Oklahoma, through his participation on the Brown v. Board of Education legal team, and in his historic leadership positions at traditionally white institutions. He shared his personal story at Duke Law School during a “Great Lives in the Law” event in 2005.

Still, the questions Duke Law students raised in class “were absolutely new to me,” he said. “Law students had a way of looking at [the Constitution] that I had never looked at before,” he recalled. “I found it so exciting. It kept me on the alert to be certain these characters weren’t going to trip me up.”

Lawyers and historians approach problems differently, he observed. He described reconciling the two as illuminating. “It’s like letting a light shine on a problem that you didn’t know you had. That’s the legal light, you see. It’s there for you to use if you know how to use it [and] want to use it.” Lawyers, too, benefit greatly from having a sense of history, he added. “Precedent, so important in law, is just another word for history. You get to talking about a case and … a similar case was considered 10 years ago — you have to know about it.”

Karla Holloway MLS ’05, the James B. Duke Professor of English who holds a joint appointment at the Law School, recalled Franklin making a similar point to her as they discussed his work with Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund attorneys on the Brown brief.

“[He said] that it was especially gratifying to see how appreciative the legal team was for the work of the historians who were contributing to the eventual Supreme Court case,” she recalled. “He said he grew to appreciate the ‘necessary’ knowledge about legislative history that ‘inevitably’ had to be understood with regard to the Constitution … that for this case it was ‘historians to the rescue.’” Franklin spoke about his work on the Brown cases last spring during a special program at the Law School organized by the Duke Forum for Law & Social Change.

Writing in the Washington Post March 26, Walter Dellinger, the Douglas B. Maggs Professor Emeritus of Law, said that Franklin wrote, taught, and lived the story of race in America. Dellinger taught at Duke Law with Franklin and William Leuchtenburg, the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Dellinger wrote that he “never ceased to marvel at how [Franklin] managed both to embody this history and yet recount it with an extraordinary candid honesty. Our students would fall into the deepest hush while he recounted his experiences researching … From Slavery to Freedom … in segregated libraries at Southern universities and Southern state libraries. He would describe the various Jim Crow rules he was required to navigate — a separate table from white patrons, a prohibition on being waited on by white female librarians and similar indignities — without a trace of bitterness.”

For Dean David F. Levi, Franklin’s passing meant the loss of a longtime friend, as the historian and his wife, Aurelia, were friends of Levi’s parents.

“One of the joys of coming to Duke was the chance to re-connect with John Hope Franklin,” said Levi, whose father, as president of the University of Chicago, recruited Franklin to join that faculty. “Professor Franklin had been a part of my growing up in Chicago. My younger brother and Professor Franklin shared a love of orchids and frequently gave one another cuttings and visited one another's greenhouses. Not long ago, at his greenhouse in Durham, Dr. Franklin proudly showed my brother and me the ‘Levi orchid’ in bloom — the very same orchid that my brother and father had given to him some 40 years ago!”

Franklin will be honored with a chair at Duke Law School, newly endowed by lead donors William Louis Dreyfus ’57 and The Duke Endowment. A national search for a leading scholar to fill the chair is underway.

“Dr. Franklin meant a great deal to the students and faculty of Duke Law School,” said Levi, who is also a donor to the chair. “Our John Hope Franklin Chair in American Legal History pays tribute to this extraordinary, principled, lovely person, scholar, and friend.”

When he met Franklin for the first time at a dinner last summer celebrating the establishment of the chair, Atiba Ellis ’00, who is currently a member of the Howard University law faculty, told Franklin about his experience pursuing a masters degree in history at Duke along with his JD, his professional aspirations, and his forthcoming article on poll taxes and voter identification laws. He recalled Franklin’s first question to him: “‘So why didn’t you finish your PhD?’ I explained how my work in history is influencing what I’m doing now as a law professor,” said Ellis, who will soon join the faculty at the University of West Virginia College of Law. “I realized that Dr. Franklin himself was a role model for me. He was championing me and inspiring me to push that work further.”

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