February 12: Fisk University Alumnus John Hope Franklin and the Birth of African-American Studies

Fisk University was the first HBCU to charter a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, beating Howard University by four days in April of 1953. A 1935 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Fisk, John Hope Franklin was among the first Fisk inductees in 1953, and he would go on to serve as president of the honor society from 1973–76.

Named after John Hope, the first Black president of both Atlanta Baptist College (Morehouse College) and Atlanta University, John Hope Franklin was born to a lawyer father and school teacher mother. Franklin grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and his father, a lawyer, successfully sued the City of Tulsa for passing an ordinance that effectively barred black business owners from rebuilding after the Tulsa Riots. The elder Franklin would go on to be the first Black district court judge in Oklahoma.

His family highly valued education and activism, and Franklin and his sister Anne joined their older brother Buck Jr. at Fisk University in 1931. Franklin received a tuition scholarship and worked as a secretary to the librarian to help pay for other expenses. He originally intended to follow in his father’s footsteps and take up law, but along the way, found himself more a student of history; Franklin was committed of working “to weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly.”

Through his writings, Franklin regularly challenged the written accounts of history, saying, “we’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.”

“[The South’s] obsession was to maintain a government, an economy, an arrangement of the sexes, a relationship of the races, and a social system that had never existed … except in the fertile imagination of those who would not confront either the reality that existed or the change that would bring them closer to reality,” he wrote in “The Great Confrontation: The South and the Problem of Change.”

An advocate of HBCUs and Black education in general, Franklin served on the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund with Thurgood Marshall, helping to build the sociological case for the landmark Brown v. Board case.

Franklin also served on the faculties of St. Augustine’s, North Carolina Central, and Howard universities in addition to a number of PWIs, and also served as the first Black president of the American Historical Society. While at St. Aug’s, in 1949, he became the first Black scholar to present a paper at the Southern Historical Association. That same year, he was asked to testify in the Sweatt v. Painter trial before the Supreme Court, which challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy vs. Ferguson. His seminal text, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans — written during his time at Central is credited for launching the discipline of African-American studies.

Franklin was a trustee of Fisk, and the namesake of the university’s library, along with his wife Aurelia. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1995, one of numerous prestigious awards and honors bestowed upon him.

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com