Franklin was born in Rentiesville, Oklahoma and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa. His baccalaureate degree was from Fisk University in 1935. At the age of 26 he took a doctorate in history at Harvard University. A man of high intelligence and tireless industry, his imposing work on the history of negroes in America was published in 1947 and has sold millions of copies. His intention was to correct the absence or neglect of black history in the mainstream of American history. Few doubt that he succeeded. Despite a superior education, he was subjected to humiliating
experiences in a country rife with prejudice and segregation. The tendrils of racism enveloped him during attempts to volunteer his services in World War II. When he applied to serve as a clerical worker with the navy, he was informed by a recruiter that his qualiﬁcations were ﬁne except for color. The War Department, for the same reason, would not take him on for a history project. When he obeyed the draft requirement for a blood test, the physician refused him access to the oﬃce. Thereafter he sidestepped the draft on grounds that his country had no use for him because of his color. In the early 1950s he worked with a team under Thurgood Marshall to prepare background for the case known as Brown v. Board of Education, which led in 1954 to the Supreme Court decision that ended segregation in public schools. After holding a number of teaching positions, he was hired by
Brooklyn College to become the ﬁrst black person to chair a history department. In 1964 he was recruited by the University of Chicago, occupied an endowed chair until 1982, and chaired the university’s history department for three years. In 1985 he became a professor of legal history for seven years in the Duke University Law School. In contrast to wartime snubs, he was honored in many ways, which included presidencies of the Southern Historical Association (1970), Organization of American Historians (1975), and the American
Historical Association (1979). He was appointed to a number of national commissions. In 1976 the National Endowment for the Humanities tapped him to deliver the prestigious Jeﬀerson Lecture. In 1995 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. From Slavery to Freedom has a monumental quality about it, equip-
ped with an arsenal of detail rendered coherent by plain writing and engaging narrative. The scope in time and space is immense, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Interacting themes in the sordid drama of slavery and oppression are the struggle for identity and liberty, successes and failures, advances and setbacks, great ﬁgures and anonymous masses. The impressive range of topics is structured in 25 well-proportioned chapters: African cultural background, African and domestic slave trade, slavery in the Caribbean (where slaves were “seasoned” for shipment to the mainland), slavery in colonial America, and Latin America, negroes in the American Revolution and aftermath to the Civil War, the work of anti-slavery groups, free and “quasi-free” Negroes, the plantation system in the South (the “peculiar institution”), Negroes in westward expansion in the Civil War, white supremacy and corruptions of Reconstruction, Negroes in World War I, the Harlem Renaissance, Negroes and the New Deal, Negroes in World War II, the movement toward “revolution” in post-war years, the results of success and “illusions of equality, and American Negro impact on the world.” Meantime, everywhere in the text, dozens of notable black men and women are given their due. The “selected” and annotated bibliography of primary and sec-
ondary sources occupies 39 pages. Appendices provide key documents: The Emancipation Proclamation, the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Fair Employment Executive Order, and John F. Kennedy’s Message to the Congress on Civil Rights. There are supporting maps and many illustrations. The work is in every respect a major one. This sweeping history of Negroes in the Americas can only be sampled here to illustrate the range of Franklin’s knowledge, the quality of his judgment, and his modest style. On the slave trade:
Upon arrival at a trading post in Africa the trader was ready to establish his contacts both with oﬃcials at the post and with the local Africans who assisted in securing the desired slaves … In addition to the various courtesy visits and negotiations that protocol required and that the traders were inclined to in order to keep the local leaders in good humor, it was often diﬃcult to ﬁnd enough ‘likely’ slaves to ﬁll a ship of considerable size …
The Africans oﬀered stiﬀ resistance to their capture, sale, and transportation to the unknown New World. Fierce wars broke out between tribes when the members of one sought to capture members of another to sell them to the traders.