Tag Archives: John Hope Franklin

Uncovering the life of George Washington Williams

George Washington Williams is the subject of a well written biography by the late John Hope Franklin.

George Washington Williams is the subject of a well written biography by the late John Hope Franklin.

I’ve been on a bit of a John Hope Franklin kick recently, and read a book yesterday of his that I enjoyed a lot.

As its name suggests, George Washington Williams: A Biography is about George Washington Williams, an African American who crammed an awful lot of life into his 41 years on the planet. 

Starting from very humble beginnings, Williams was at different points a solider in two wars, a pastor at Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church, the first black state representative in Ohio, an accomplished historian who wrote respected and pioneering histories of black people, a nominated diplomat and a fearless traveler who confronted Belgium’s King Leopold about his country’s treatment of people in the Congo, Williams and his story were largely unknown when the recently deceased Franklin began his studies of him.

Franklin’s purposes are both to recover Williams’ story and to place it squarely in the tradition of mid- to late- nineteenth century America. 

As with many of his other works,  including his most widely circulated work, From Slavery to Freedom, Franklin’s subject is a critical element of his belief about what constitutes legitimate history.  

By writing about Williams, Franklin is making a strong statement both about who should be included in the American story, and, beyond that, that Williams’ personal qualities and actions place him firmly within the mainstream of American life, rather than on the margins.

George Washington Williams includes a recounting of the various chapters in the protagonist’s life, with summarizing analyses and transitions at the end of each chapter. 

Franklin does not hesitate to show his subject’s weak points: he often fudged personal details and other facts, for instance.  The author assesses these faults by saying they make Williams human, and, in some ways, underscore his remarkable nature and accomplishments.

The book also has a fascinating and unusually personal introduction titled, “Stalking George Washington Williams” that recounts Franlkin’s efforts across many states and countries to learn about this previously ignored man.  In a section reminiscent of Alice Walker’s essay about searching for Zora Neale Hurston’s grave in Florida, Franklin describes a similar process with Williams.

Like much of Franklin’s work, George Washington Williams is clearly argued and accessibly written. And, more than some of his other books, this one gave me a sense not only of his subject, but of the times and how Williams reflected, and, to a small degree, shaped them.

I recommend giving it a read.

R.I.P., John Hope Franklin

The late John Hope Franklin lived a remarkable full of accomplishment and social commitment.

The late John Hope Franklin lived a remarkable full of accomplishment and social commitment.

On Wednesday, groundbreaking historian John Hope Franklin took his last breath.

On January 15, a birthday he shared with legendary civil rights leader Martin Luther King,  Jr., he had turned 94 years old.

Franklin tells the story of his remarkable  life, albeit in a typically understated fashion, in Mirror To America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin.

This clearly written and insightful book starts with Franklin’s humble beginnings in an all-black community in Oklahoma, where he endured humiliating experiences because of his race.  Mirror to America continues hrough his education at Fisk University, his doctoral work at Harvard University and his long, distinguished and acclaimed career as an historian.

Mirror to America makes it clear that Franklin took seriously his role as historian and saw as part of his professional responsibility the importance of including the history of black people in America as a central, rather than peripheral part of the American story.

From Slavery to Freedom is his most well known and widely circulated book. 

First published in 1947, the work was repeatedly updated in the following six decades.  By some estimates it had sold at least three million copies.  The book helped contribute to the ultimately successful efforts of Thurgood Marshall and the rest of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to overturn segregation through the collection of cases known as Brown v. Board of Education.

In addition to his scholarship, Franklin broke color barriers as an adminstrator, too.   He was the first black department chair at predominantly white Brooklyn College-a fact which inspired one of his mentees, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis-and the first black president of the American Historical Association

He remained civically engaged until his final days, endorsing Barack Obama for President in 2008. 

Franklin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, in 1995.  The nation is diminished by his loss but greatly enhanced by his socially committed and committed life.