Resurrecting black history
John Hope Franklin’s ‘From Slavery to Freedom’ stirs once again
Published: Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Updated: Thursday, March 4, 2010 10:03
As we come upon the one year anniversary of historian John Hope Franklin's death, the recent release of the 9th edition of his epic book "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans" continues to fascinate scholars.
Completely revised and updated to include recent events such as the presidential election of Barack Obama, the premiere resource of black American history was first written between 1943 and 1947 while Franklin was a history professor at N. C. Central University, then called North Carolina College for Negroes.
The book was first published as "A History of Negro Americans."
Franklin's son, John W. Franklin, said his father's fields of study were 18th and 19th century Southern and American history.
"He believed that everyone's story is important, not just the stories of ‘important people,'" said John Franklin.
"He was shocked by what he learned of the inhuman treatment of Africans during the slave trade and in the Americas," he said.
John Franklin said that his father realized that the history of African Americans was missing, incomplete and incorrect.
Since its release the book has been translated into German, Japanese, Chinese, French and Portuguese. It has sold more than 3 million copies to date.
"It's filled with all kinds of amazing stories and includes all new bio-sketches and ‘window in time sections,'" said Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the book's co-author. Higginbotham is a professor of history and the chairperson of African American studies at Harvard University.
Higginbotham said Franklin handed her the book to rewrite a few years after the 2000 revision because he was working on his autobiography.
"He read the book in 2004 and said it was outdated," said Higginbotham.
"It was a challenge to fit new information into the old so I had to start with a clean slate."
Higginbotham said she started from scratch researching and incorporating information into the new edition. She said the scholarship in the book is about 80 percent updated. She said it was important that the book to have the same power and respect it had in 1947.
"Little things like the section on Malcolm X have been revised and the African chapter is completely different," said Higginbotham.
"There was no chapter on the black power movement in the old editions and there is discussion of hip-hop and its global expansion."
Higginbotham said black studies came out of the black power era and singers like Nina Simone and James Brown.
The 9th edition pays more attention to black women and their contribution to history and black culture, including artists, writers and musicians.
"I looked back in history and asked ‘where are the women?'" she said.
"They were there but you don't see them because people didn't ask."
"Because women were there, I tried to include more about them by providing big sections on their work in the era of self-help," she said.
Carlton Wilson, NCCU history department chair, said he first read the book during the summer of his sophomore year at NCCU . He described it as "one of the most essential books of the second half of the 20th century."
"It was the first book of black history I had ever read," he said.
"The flowing prose and research taught me how to write narrative history. It taught us all, anyone who is a historian."
"It is a significant part of American history and African American history," he said.
"Other scholars had written black history but eventually Franklin's book institutionalized African American history for high school and college textbooks."
Wilson said that every edition and co-author has added to its significance and the new edition continued the tradition.
He said the new addition is more appealing and looks more like a textbook.
"Even whites had a valid text to teach without using biased resources," said Wilson. "It's a universal work that surpasses time and place."
Wilson said he remembered a Fulbright study tour to China back in the ‘90s in which he and his companions met with Chinese professors who were teaching African American history to their students.
"We asked them what resources they were using to teach," said Wilson. "They looked at us strangely and said ‘John Hope Franklin.' It shows the reach of the book and Franklin as a scholar."
Higginbotham said Franklin saw about 15 of the chapters before his death and called it "wonderful." She said he said it was just what he wanted, "to make the book new."
Higginbotham knew Franklin all of her life and said he had a "generous spirit and always tried to help others."
She said while pursuing his research, Franklin endured all kinds of injustices, including having to sit in the back of libraries to conduct his research.
"He endured insults for later generations that could read history, love history and use it to demand equal rights."
Higgenbotham described Franklin "was a wonderful gift to black people and America."
"He used to say ‘there's no greater gift America could give to the world then to solve its race problem'."