Franklin earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Fisk University in 1935 and his Master of Arts degree and Ph. D. in history from Harvard University in 1936 and 1941, respectively. In the early 1950s, he served on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team that helped develop the sociological case for Brown v. Board of Education.
Franklin’s teaching career began at Fisk University. From 1947 to 1956, he taught at Howard University and from 1956 to 1964 he served as chair of the history department at Brooklyn College, the first person of color to head a major history department. From 1964 to 1968, Franklin was a professor of history at the University of Chicago and chair of the department from 1967 to 1970. In 1983, he was appointed the James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke University. Franklin published his autobiography, “Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin,” in 2005. In it he said “my challenge was to weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of Blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly.”
Franklin authored numerous other books, including “The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860” (1943) and “Racial Equality in America” (1976). In 1976, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Franklin for the Jefferson Lecture, the federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Other honors and awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented by President William Clinton in 1995, the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1995, and the John W. Kluge Prize in 2006 for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity. Franklin died March 25, 2009.