Historian John Hope Franklin has died. He was 94. Franklin's work defined the field of African-American history, and he played a key role in pivotal civil rights events of the 20th century. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this remembrance.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: John Hope Franklin's seminal 1947 book "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans" was groundbreaking.

Professor SCOTT ELLSWORTH (History, University of Michigan): He changed the way that African-American viewed their history and viewed their identity.

ELLIOTT: University of Michigan history professor Scott Ellsworth is a friend and protege of Dr. Franklin's.

Prof. ELLSWORTH: Before "From Slavery to Freedom" was published, it was fairly difficult to find out easily very much about black history.

ELLIOTT: In a 2005 NPR interview, Franklin said he believed the past could lead America to a new future.

Dr. JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN (Historian; Author, "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans"): We have to confront history. We have to face it down to be certain that it won't haunt us again.

ELLIOTT: Franklin used his scholarship to forge change. In the 1950s he did historical research for the Brown vs. The Board of Education case. Franklin remembered hearing about the Supreme Court's landmark decision outlawing separate-but-equal schools.

Dr. FRANKLIN: I was in my office at Harvard University and my wife called me and said, have you heard? I said, heard what? She said, the decision of the Brown case. I said no. Then she told me. And then she told me it was unanimous and which time I think I let out some kind of shriek and it was dancing in the streets after that.

ELLIOTT: Franklin was the first African-American to chair a history department at a majority white institution, and the first to preside over major historical associations, all the while enduring the racism of his day. His family suffered in the 1921 Tulsa race riots when he was a small child.

As a black scholar, he faced discrimination at state archives. And in 1995, after a dinner in honor of his presidential medal of freedom, he was mistaken for a coat check clerk at Washington's exclusive Cosmos Club, where he was a member. But he never lost heart.

Dr. FRANKLIN: Well, I know something they don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: What's that?

Dr. FRANKLIN: That I'm as good as they are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FRANKLIN: And that stands me in good stead.

ELLIOTT: Franklin added, little by little, chip by chip, you can change things, and I'm willing to keep on trying. John Hope Franklin died from congestive heart failure this morning at Duke University Hospital. He was 94 years old.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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