Drew Faust on John Hope Franklin and 'Historians to the Rescue'

Drew Faust, JHF

Historian and Harvard President Drew Faust discusses John Hope Franklin's Legacy. Photos by Les Todd/Duke Photography

Historian Drew Gilpin Faust opened the Centennial Symposium honoring John Hope Franklin by praising the legacy he left for activists and scholars and for research “that rescued us from bad history.”

“John Hope Franklin wrote history—discovering neglected and forgotten dimensions of the past, mining archives with creativity and care, building in the course of his career a changed narrative of the American experience and the meaning of race within it,” said Faust, president of Harvard University. 

She delivered the opening keynote address at the Nasher Museum of Art for the symposium, “Global Slaveries|Impossible Freedoms: The Intellectual Legacies of John Hope Franklin,” which continues through Saturday. 

“But John Hope also meditated about history and its place in the world, on its role as action as well as description, on history itself as causal agent and on the writing of history as mission as well as profession.” 

Drew Faust with Franklin family

Faust greets John W. Franklin, son of John Hope Franklin and a senior manager at The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, and his wife, Karen.   

Faust said it was a positive sign that America, in 2015, seems “to be undertaking an unprecedentedly clear-eyed look at the nation’s past, at the legacy of slavery and race that have made us anything but a colorblind society.” She said this would be a most fitting tribute to Franklin’s legacy.

“No one has done more to delineate the contours of that shameful legacy and to insist upon its importance to America’s present and future.  And in that effort he has also done something more—for history itself—insisting not just upon its relevance, but indeed its preeminence as the indispensable instrument of change and even salvation from legacies that left unexamined will destroy us. ‘Good history,’ he remarked in 2003, ‘is a good foundation for a better present and future.’

“For John Hope Franklin, history was a calling and a weapon, a passion and a project.  Fundamental to the task at hand, would be to rewrite the history of history, to revise the ‘hallowed’ falsehoods, to illustrate how the abuse and misuse of history served to legitimate systems of oppression not just in the past but in the present as well.  Misrepresentations of the past, Franklin came to recognize, had given ‘the white South the intellectual justification for its determination not to yield on many important points, especially in its treatment of the Negro.’  The post-Civil War South had endeavored to ‘win with the pen what they had failed to win with the sword.’”

Franklin didn’t shy away from controversy, Faust said, noting the challenges to his pioneering work “From Slavery to Freedom,” and history inevitably courts disputes, both within academe and in society at large. She said Franklin recognized that “an understanding of history destroys innocence,” but one of his legacies is to have historians ask questions that offer a way to a better future.

“Can history help relieve us once and for all of the burden of that ignorance and the evil it can produce? Are we as historians committed—and prepared—to seize this opportunity and responsibility to extend history beyond the academy?  Are we as a nation at last ready to welcome the truth that can yield reconciliation?  Are we as a nation prepared at last to call history to the rescue?”

Below: Faust talks with Duke President Richard H. Brodhead.

Drew Faust, Richard Brodhead