Franklin became famous for telling the stories of African Americans. His first work showed his potential by uncovering a topic no historian had delved into before.
Many of the first books written by mid-century American intellectuals were about one particular individual. The constraints of a biography allowed the then-student to focus their ideas and craft a limited, yet detailed, argument. One of the giants of the American historical profession, John Hope Franklin, eschewed a single person for a larger group for his first book. This decision ended up being monumental, both for Franklin’s career and for the historical profession at large.
John Hope Franklin was born in 1915 in Rentiesville, Oklahoma, one of the state’s all-black towns. His father, Buck Colbert Franklin, was a local attorney who helped protect African Americans during the deadly Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Franklin graduated from Fisk University in 1935 and enrolled at Harvard, where he studied under the noted historian Paul Herman Buck. While he later became a famous historian of African Americans, they were not always Franklin’s original focus. As noted in his 2006 memoir, Franklin once purposefully wrote a highly-graded paper on the white preacher Lyman Abbott because “I was eager to write on a non-Negro subject and compete with the students on material where it was not perceived that I had some inherent advantage.” (Franklin, Mirror to America, 62)
For his dissertation, Franklin did study a particular group of African Americans who had been grossly ignored by the historical record at that time. The vast majority of historians focused on either free blacks in the North, or slaves and the effects of slavery on the black population. This myopia led the profession to ignore the countless achievements and lived experiences of the free African American population living in the South. Franklin’s work sought to remedy this exception with a case study of free African Americans living in one particular state.
Franklin’s book skillfully lays out numerous qualities of the free black population in North Carolina throughout the antebellum period. He begins by clearly laying out his themes and a number of foundational statistics. Franklin also addresses his topic and the sparse attention given to it by the historical record. While he acknowledges that records on the subject are scattered and hard to come by, Franklin notes, “The enthusiasm and zeal so characteristic of the trained student of American history in the pursuit of knowledge concerning so many problems have been almost entirely lacking in the study of the free Negro.” (Franklin, The Free Negro, 3)
Franklin’s book starts out as a kind of encyclopedia, meticulously detailing how the term “free Negro” was defined and exactly how many of the group lived in the state during different periods. It is in the book’s second half, however, where Franklin’s skills as a historian and writer shine. He goes from dry portrayals of statistics to grappling with the difficult position of free African Americans in the state. Franklin focuses on specific men and women, such as teacher John Chavis and the skilled craftsman Thomas Day and his wife. Some of these individuals owned slaves, but they were all subject to harsh social and legal restrictions throughout the state. Franklin writes, “If he were a Thomas Day, his color had little to do with his wages. But if he were less desirable and therefore less welcome in the community, he could not command the highest wages — if he had the good fortune to obtain employment at all.” (Franklin, The Free Negro, 144)
In all, Franklin greatly admired the free African Americans of North Carolina and their perseverance through the antebellum period. He notes the overwhelming obstacles that many of them faced, the requirements they had to meet in order to remain free, and the privations of freedom as second-class citizens. Franklin also discusses the nuanced approach to free African Americans taken by North Carolina throughout the period. They were respected in many areas, had some economic success, were individually freed by the legislature, and even voted until 1835. (Franklin, The Free Negro, 32–34) But the restrictive legal codes and violence were clearly more detrimental to the success of the population in North Carolina. He writes, “The danger of being stolen, moreover, and sold back into slavery hung over the heads of adults and children alike. The fact that, by 1860, 30,000 Negroes in North Carolina had been able not only to obtain freedom but to maintain it is a fact more fully appreciated when viewed in the light of existing circumstances.” (Franklin, The Free Negro, 57)
The Free Negro was mostly ignored by the historical press upon its release. Its early reviews were positive but mostly written by unknown scholars, and it won no major awards. Despite these humble beginnings, Franklin would go on to write dozens of books and become one of the 20th century’s most accomplished historians. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 and the John W. Kluge lifetime achievement prize in 1996. Much of this fame came from his political advocacy, teaching, and history books such as From Slavery to Freedom. But all of this great success started with his time in North Carolina, a period that led to his heralded first book.