On Tuesday and Wednesday, scholars will gather at Duke and NCCU to mark the 75th anniversary of historian John Hope Franklin’s groundbreaking book From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans.
When first published in 1948, Franklin’s work joined W. E. B. Dubois’ 1935 Black Reconstruction in challenging what had become the conventional wisdom among establishment white historians about the post-Civil War era known as Reconstruction.
At the time From Slavery to Freedom was published in 1947, the consensus was that Reconstruction was a corrupt failure, and it was a central element of the South’s white supremacy myth of the “Lost Cause.” Fundamental to that racist trope was that the newly freed African American men—in alliance with their white Republican allies—were incapable of governing themselves. This willfully inaccurate misreading of history was supported by popular culture by books and films like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1938).
In fact, as Franklin and Dubois pointed out, the opposite was true. This multiracial alliance, with its prospect of a viable two-party South, was largely successful until it was subverted by the terror of the Ku Klux Klan and fading political support from Northern Republicans.
The keynote address for the Duke/NCCU symposium, which is free, will be delivered on October 25 by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and African American Studies at Harvard University and co-author of the current edition of From Slavery to Freedom, which has been consistently updated since its publication for use as a textbook, including the renamed subtitle from Franklin’s original, A History of Negro Americans.
Speakers from NCCU include Dr. Lydia Lindsey, Dr. Jim C. Harper, II, and Dr. David Jackson. Duke speakers include Duke’s William Darity, Samuel DuBois Cook Distinguished Professor of Public Policy, and William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History.
The sites for the symposium are appropriate: Franklin taught at NCCU (then North Carolina College) from 1943-1947, and at Duke from 1983-1985. Duke University campus is the home of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History & Culture. A stretch of I-85 in Durham is also named for Franklin.
In the decades that followed the book’s publication (and Franklin’s 1961 follow-up, Reconstruction: After the Civil War), other historians—who came to be known as “revisionists,” though in fact, they were recovering the real record of what took place during Reconstruction—wrote books supporting Franklin’s position. These included Leon Litwack’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Been In the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, and Eric Foner’s 1988 book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877.
The latest addition to this body of work is Fergus Bordewich’s new book, Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction.
In his book, Bordewich tells the largely unknown story of how President Grant, goaded by Radical Republicans in Congress, mobilized the power of the federal government to defeat the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorist army, which once boasted 300,000 partisans across the South.
The Klan’s rampage of beatings, floggings, rapes, and lynchings was aimed at formerly enslaved African Americans attempting to exert their constitutional rights, chief among them voting rights. Much of this campaign took place in North Carolina. Grant, with an army of federal prosecutors, armed with the suspension of habeas corpus and backed up by the bayonets of Union soldiers, broke the Klan, first in South Carolina and then throughout the South.
“The symposium of John Hope Franklin’s pioneering work reminds us how tenacious the struggle has been to reclaim our history,” Bordewich said, in an interview following a recent reading in Chapel Hill. “Franklin fought early in numerous books and articles since to correct the prevailing, racist view of Reconstruction in the South. By the early 1960s, as his views were attracting support from younger, progressive historians, Franklin and the others were dismissed as a ‘Revisionist’ by the American historical establishment.
“And yet, Franklin prevailed, largely on the strength of From Slavery to Freedom.”
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