John Hope Franklin (January 2, 1915 – March 25, 2009) was a United States historian and past president of Phi Beta Kappa, the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Southern Historical Association. Franklin is best known for his work From Slavery to Freedom, first published in 1947, and continually updated. More than three million copies have been sold. In 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
But that's not why I love this major figure.
Currently, I'm re-reading "Mirror to America, The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin". Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005, ISBN 0-374-29944-7.
In chapter 10, 'A Hilltop High', he calls out E. Merton Coulter, a respected professor at the University of Georgia. Coulter writes 'The South During Reconstruction' for a series designed to provide up-to-date volumes on the history of the South. His text is full of demeaning and disparaging accounts of Blacks in the state legislature. The tone was similar to what was revealed in Thomas Dixon's The Klansman and D. W. Griffith's infamous film, Birth of a Nation.
Professor Franklin didn't let this get by without scrutiny by first criticizing the praise mongering reviewers, and then Coulter for his misrepresenting and distorting his sources. He goes further to alert the wider historian profession to the flaws in Coulter's work. This was done in 1948.
Franklin's damning essay could have easily ended his career. However, his peers of influential historians thanked and praised him.
Here's why I love John Hope Franklin. In this chapter, he goes on to say, "My willingness to publicly and vigorously confront the damning presumptions of accepted scholarly wisdom would prove to be more important in advancing my reputation than I could have imagined."
The takeaway for me is that we can't let others define us, with impunity, based on their status or credentials. We need to speak up to these negative portrayals and injustices. It's as much about integrity as it is about reputation.
Genealogists and family historians have a stake in this. If we are to honor our avocation, we need to publicly and vigorously confront the injustices, inaccuracies, and the 'Coulters' within our field.