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A photograph of John Hope Franklin seated with pen and paper in hand while taking notes at the Archives Advisory Council Meeting.
Archives Advisory Council Meeting, 1970. Credit: National Archives and Records Service.

Tom Cryer on How We Understand John Hope Franklin’s Legacy

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Tom Cryer is a second-year PhD student at University College’s Institute of the Americas, where his research investigates race, memory, and nationhood through the life, scholarship, and advocacy of the historian John Hope Franklin (1915-2009). He is an Events Editor at U.S. Studies Online, a Graduate Representative for the Southern Historical Association, and a host on the New Books Network. Bela Kellogg is a 2023 Kluge summer intern, where she worked with editor Andrew Breiner and scholar in residence Samira Spatzek. She is currently pursuing a B.A. in English and history of art from the University of Michigan

Bela Kellogg: Before I ask you about your work, I’m curious to know: What brought you to the Kluge Center in the first place? 

Tom Cryer: The British Research Council Fellowship at the Kluge Center is something I’ve been pursuing even before starting my PhD! Writing PhD proposals during the height of COVID-19, when there existed no immediate opportunities to travel, the Kluge Fellowship seemed an ideal—and incredibly rare—opportunity to dedicate months to researching in the Library’s unparalleled manuscript divisions. 

Primary sources are the raw materials of American Studies research, yet, being in the UK, there are several financial, personal and visa-related barriers that prevent prolonged access to them. Having so much in one place alleviates those barriers and provides direct experience of American life—something rarely afforded by valuable yet ultimately limited funding opportunities for UK-based PhDs. After four months in the archives, I’m hoping this experience can fuel my scholarship for the upcoming years, and I’m incredibly grateful for all the folks at the Library for helping me along that journey.


BK: While investigating the emergence of Black historiography in response to post-war racial liberalism, you’ve centered your research on the life and work of the historian John Hope Franklin. What contributions did Franklin make to historical scholarship in the middle of the twentieth century? 

TC: Simply put, extensive. Franklin defined himself as a historian of the South, particularly during the nineteenth century. His public and academic contributions to the historiography on Reconstruction, the period of political realignment in the South following the Civil War, are perhaps most well-known. Works including Reconstruction: After the Civil War (1963) provided a sweeping revisionist approach to one of the most controversial topics in American historiography. During the mid-twentieth-century’s own period of Black liberatory activism, Franklin struggled to dispel racially predicated tropes concerning the alleged corruption and political inability of Black officeholders after emancipation. 

Of course, there’s also Franklin’s landmark From Slavery to Freedom (1947), a survey of Black history in Africa and across the New World, which—although often in complicated and protracted ways—became a curricular centrepiece of the Black History courses that proliferated in the 1960s. Today, Franklin’s remarks stressing the necessity of acknowledging the full scope of Black history are the first words that greet visitors in the historical section of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Yet there are also fields of research where Franklin’s contributions are altogether less recognised. For example, I situate Franklin’s The Militant South (1956) as a notable work in southern intellectual history, a field which Franklin is rarely associated with.

A black and white photograph of John Hope Franklin standing in the center of a crowd smiling while his arm wrapped around a woman. Beside them, there is a street sign, denoting “John Hope Franklin Blvd” and “S McIntosh St.”
First Annual Heritage Conference, 1999. Credit: Oklahoma Historical Society Photograph Collection.


BK: In discussing Franklin’s writing process for From Slavery to Freedom, you talk about the time Franklin spent at the Library of Congress. What kind of challenges did Franklin grapple with as a Black scholar navigating the archive? 

TC: Washington, DC was a segregated city when Franklin came to the Library in 1946. Two years earlier, the lawyer and activist Pauli Murray referred to DC as “the nation’s capital, where Jim Crow rides the American Eagle, if indeed he does not put the poor symbol to flight.” While I’ve found no evidence that Franklin encountered segregation in the Library of Congress itself, the vast majority of restaurants in the local area were segregated. The restaurants within the Supreme Court and the United Methodist Building were the only integrated restaurants surrounding Capitol Hill. On Saturdays then, when both buildings were shut, Franklin would either walk to eat at Union Station or lunch on only a snack bar. Quite famously, the historian of the South C. Vann Woodward noted that had he faced  the kind of challenges Franklin encountered, he may not have become a historian. It’s an important reminder that historians’ experiences are always more than their scholarship—we have to write Franklin’s biography ‘in the open air’, accounting for these daily textures of Jim Crow. 


BK: How does racializing Franklin’s legacy limit one’s understanding of his work as a historian?

TC: A persistent theme of my work is Franklin’s struggle to be recognised beyond his race. We need to historicise the political implications of this desired identificational mobility and respect it. Franklin, after all, always insisted that he taught Southern, not Black or white history, and privately held great reservations about tokenism. From references supporting his PhD funding applications to reviews of his scholarship, Franklin was frequently praised in this insidiously back-handed manner as a scholar who was balanced, objective and Harvard-trained despite being Black. That rhetoric carefully defined the intellectual space from which Franklin was allowed to operate and dismissed the rich tradition of prior Black historiography that inspired Franklin as unsophisticated ‘racial pleading.’ 

Racialising Franklin also had a transparently exculpatory function. Newspapers throughout Chicago and Brooklyn—places where Franklin became a prominent Black hire in historically white history departments—celebrated how Franklin’s appointment supposedly could not have occurred in the Jim Crow South. Symbolising Northern urbane Black mobility, Franklin’s example not only suggested that academic meritocracy worked but also excused a university system that prioritised excellence over equality from the broader racial inequities that plagued these cities. Franklin’s legacy was, therefore, always racialised. Nevertheless, by historicizing those logics we gain powerful insights into how racialisation continues to operate within the academy. I recognise it’s rather easy for some white British guy to say we need to look beyond race. The fact that Franklin was Black mattered and still matters, but we need to ask why it mattered and for whom it mattered. In understanding Franklin’s legacy, we can’t leave such persistent and nebulous characterisations unchallenged or uninterrogated. 

President Bill Clinton (left of podium) presents a booklet to John Hope Franklin (right of podium) entitled, “One America in the 21st Century: The President's Initiative on Race,” while audience members applaud in the background.
President Bill Clinton with John Hope Franklin. Credit: Ralph Alswang, 1998, White House Photograph Office.


BK: How do the concepts of liminality and double consciousness reframe the discussion of Franklin’s work? And how have these concepts shaped contemporary Black historiography? 

TC: As I’ve written of Franklin’s scholarship during WWII, Franklin’s early scholarship reflected profoundly on liminality—the mid-twentieth-century position of African Americans as formally emancipated yet not guaranteed the rights of first-class citizenship. In Franklin’s early scholarship on the The Free Negro in North Carolina—i.e. antebellum African Americans who were formerly enslaved or had been born ‘free’—he was concerned with problems apparent in his own time: how could marginalised groups be incorporated into the greater American whole? How could they demand equitable rights and avoid economic exploitation? For Franklin, the fact that such questions needed to be asked in the first place was a tragedy caused by the white supremacist assault on Reconstruction, which left emancipation halted and unfulfilled. 

Here’s where second sight comes in. Second sight is a concept arising from W. E. B. Du Bois who, in The Atlantic Monthly in 1897, spoke of “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness– an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Franklin sensed and wrote extensively on his experiences of ‘two-ness’ in works such as 1963’s ‘The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar.’ Franklin, however, also found empowerment from ‘two-ness.’ He continuously celebrated the ability of African Americans to realise the betrayals and paradoxes of American history so as to build a better nation. Faithfully respecting Black history was a test of both a supposedly non-racial American nationhood and this original yet unactualized promise that all men were created equal. This was a vision that, via education and humanistic understanding, sought to translate the defeat of fascism into the elimination of prejudice across the globe. It’s perhaps most telling that all of the editions of From Slavery to Freedom published during Franklin’s lifetime ended with precisely that wish, precisely that contextually specific yet still resonant explanation of why history mattered and continues to matter.


BK: Lastly, what’s next for you? 

TC: Long-term, the perils of the UK academic job market! For now, however, I can’t wait to return to teaching in London and resume all the diverse side pursuits of PhD life, from becoming a Graduate Representative at the Southern Historical Association to hosting book review interviews for the New Books Network. Say what you like about academia, but no two days are ever the same.


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