Dr. John Hope Franklin, the wildly accomplished historian who documented Blacks’ place in the great American story, firmly believed in reparations — the idea that the descendants of slaves in the United States should be compensated for the centuries of free labor that enriched slaveowners and their descendants and the American empire. It is a fact overlooked by the recent flurry of mainstream media coverage commemorating his life work. (He died at the age of 94 late last month.) But it is no small detail.
Consider his response in 2007 to state legislators in North Carolina and Virginia who balked at apologies for slavery introduced by their peers. For him a mere verbal apology wasn’t enough.
“People are running around apologizing for slavery,” he said. “What about that awful period since slavery — Reconstruction, Jim Crow and all the rest? And what about the enormous wealth that was built up by black labor? I think that’s little to pay for the gazillions that black people built up — the wealth of this country — with their labor, and now you’re going to say I’m sorry I beat the hell out of you for all these years? That’s not enough.”
When Dr. Franklin spoke of history, he did so with the definitive authority of an expert who spent over half a century culling through the details. His accomplishments are legendary: distinguished Duke University professor who taught at the University of Chicago and Harvard University (where he earned his doctorate in 1941); author of 20 books; first African American to chair a history dept at a predominately white university; over 3.5 million copies of his book From Slavery to Freedom have been printed since it’s 1947 publication.
It is very easy now in our age of political correctness to courteously applaud the accomplishments of a barrier breaking African American in the field of U.S. History, which he said he wrote without “the embellishment of emotional display.” But an entirely different pill to swallow is the conclusion he gleaned from his analysis: reparations are essential to acknowledging the country’s wrongs.
“There are all kinds of ways you could do it,” Franklin said in a video interview at Duke University, in which he insisted he wasn’t asking for reparations personally — even though he was entitled. “What about scholarships? What about descent places for people to live? Out of the fortunes that were made, you could build a mansion for the descendant of every former slave.”
Others have argued that reparations should be paid directly by the U.S. government, which Harpers magazine (November 2000) estimated at $100 trillion dollars for 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865 with compounded interest of 6 percent. Still others have argued that payments should come from corporations who benefited as well as former colonial governments.
The idea of reparations for Blacks has for years been met in the American mainstream with at best contempt and at worst ridicule. But for John Hope Franklin the essential truth of American history was found not just in the large sweeping narrative, but also in the subtleties of the racial divide lived everyday.
His careers as a historian and as an activist (he was a researcher for Thurgood Marshall for the Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education case and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma) are well documented. Less known are his day-to-day confrontations with the legacy of white supremacy, subtleties he often related in personal anecdotes:
As a 6 year-old boy, his father’s business in Tulsa was destroyed (luckily his father survived) during the infamous 1921 race riot. As one of the first Black boy scouts in 1927, he was severely reprimanded midway through helping a blind white woman cross the street upon her discovery he was black. In 1995, while in DC to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest award for a civilian, he hosted a party for friends at the Cosmos Club where he was a member and was asked by a white woman to get her coat, even though uniform attendants were present.
Personal insults like these only scratch the surface of the economic and psychological setbacks he suffered, like countless other African Americans, at the hands of white supremacy ingrained in American culture. Insults like these were a reminder of the big picture reasons why descendant of enslaved Africans lagged behind in the present. For Dr. Franklin, this was a direct result of American slavery.
“They ought to develop some kind of modus operandi that they can do something else — something to absolve themselves of three centuries of guilt from which they are the direct beneficiaries,” he said in a 2007 interview. “How large is the black population now living in abject poverty in this country? How large is the population of blacks who have poor health? Sometimes they inherited the poor health right from their forebears who were beaten and treated like they were animals all over this country.”
It is true, as opponents of reparations argue, that America’s troublesome history of racial inequity was born in the past. But it is equally apparent, as John Hope Franklin insisted, that our future is defined by the ways we address its legacy in the present.
If we really seek to commemorate him, it seems to me that the best we can do is to not just pay lip service to the man. Instead we should honor him by paying homage in the form of meaningful national policy that considers the conclusion of his life work.
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post in May 2009.