By Radhika Viswanathan
Published: March 1st, 2017
On the last day of Black History Month, the Woody Tanger Hall was transformed from an auditorium into a wellspring of conversation regarding civil rights, history, and oppression. The room was packed with students and faculty—standing room only—who came together in honor of John Hope Franklin Memorial Day, hosted by the Brooklyn College history department.
John Hope Franklin was an African American historian. He was born in the segregated south in 1915 and after studying at Fisk University, received his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. He became the chair of the history department at Brooklyn College in 1956, making him the first person of color to chair a history department. His book From Slavery to Freedom, published in 1947, is widely considered the golden standard of African American history. He contributed to the integration of schools through his work on the Brown vs. Board of Education case and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965. An advocate towards ending prejudice and racism in American society, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995.
The day began with a play describing John Hope Franklin’s life and legacy, organized by Brooklyn College students and directed by Professor Dale Byam. The play was followed by speakers, including filmmaker Sam Pollard, Professor Marisa J. Fuentes from Rutgers University, Professor Thavolia Glymph from Duke University, and Professor Manisha Sinha from the University of Connecticut, who spoke of their experiences studying African American history and the anti-slavery movement.
The event was part of the We Stand Against Hate series, organized by President Michelle Anderson. “Reflecting on the history of African-Americans in this country, including the experience of slavery and abolition, helps us understand our own heritage and enhances our compassion for one another across difference,” she wrote in an email. “That such a luminary in black history taught here and that we celebrate his life and legacy together today is a testament to the excellence of our program and our commitment to diversity.”
The final keynote panel was composed of Kimberley Phillips-Boehm, David Levering Lewis, and Paula Giddings, all famed historians. All three intertwined overviews of their research with stories of their interactions with Franklin and his works.
Phillips-Boehm is the author of War! What Is It Good For? Black Freedom Struggles and the U.S. Military from World War II to Iraq, an analysis of African American participation in wars, which won the 2013 Philip Taft Labor History Award. “Franklin’s book From Slavery to Freedom was on my parents shelf when I was a child,” she said, “It’s the book that my aunt handed to me when I graduated from Yale.” With tears in her eyes, she emphasized how influential of a historian Franklin had been, and the path he paved for students such as herself.
Lewis is well-known for his research on black history in Europe and the United States, and won two Pulitzer Prize awards for his two-volume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois. He spoke about following Franklin’s footsteps through Fisk University and reading his works as a historian. He described finally meeting Franklin for the first time, at Brooklyn College: “The man and the legend merged wonderfully for me that day.”
Giddings focused her talk on her book Ida, A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching because of Franklin’s influence on the dissemination of Wells’ story. He helped Wells’ daughter publish her mother’s autobiography after almost 40 years of ignored attempts. As a result, future historians—including Giddings herself—have been able to gain firsthand accounts of Wells’ life.
While introducing the panel, the current history department chair, Gunja SenGupta, described what John Hope Franklin’s legacy and work means to our world today. “He believed that you can use scholarship to make a better society, that structures of oppression in society did not fall from the sky,” she said, urging students to embrace activism. “You can turn history into a strategy for change.”
This push to broaden student understanding of social justice issues was informative and inspiring. Freshman Preeya Ninan attended the event as an assignment for her Shaping of the Modern World class. “I definitely think more events like this one should be held at Brooklyn College,” she said. “It was very moving to learn about a person who had overcome incredible obstacles and opened my eyes to the power of the individual to foster social change.”