A Legend Passes

    • April 10, 2009

The nation lost a pioneering leader in late March when John Hope Franklin died of congestive heart failure at age 94. A man of many firsts, Franklin broke down racial barriers in education that once prevented minority students from being admitted to predominantly white colleges and universities, medical schools, and other institutions.

Born in rural Oklahoma in 1915, Franklin was denied admission to the University of Oklahoma and instead attended historically black Fisk University in Nashville and then Harvard University. Shortly thereafter, he became the first African-American department chair at a predominantly white college when he went to work at Brooklyn College. He went on to break many other racial barriers, becoming the first black president of the American Historical Association and the first African American to present a paper at the then-segregated Southern Historical Association, which later elected him its president.

In 1997, President Clinton asked Franklin, by then a preeminent historian and pioneering civil rights leader, to spearhead an executive initiative designed to spark a productive dialogue about race relations in the United States. One of the many recommendations Franklin and his colleagues made was to take steps to remedy racial disparities in the nation’s health care system, which too often leave minorities with subpar care. “Purposeful or even unintended discrimination by health care providers can result in unnecessary suffering and/or death,” the report concluded.

Progress has been made since Franklin issued his report to the president more than a decade ago. “The men and women behind those white coats are no longer all white,” John Lumpkin, M.D., M.P.H., senior vice president and director of the Health Care Group at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in a 2006 speech to the American Health Association Institute for Diversity in Health Management.

Much of that progress is attributable to Franklin himself. He authored numerous works of profound significance, including what is commonly regarded as the definitive work on African-American history: From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans.

Franklin did not limit his influence to academics. He helped former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall craft a winning legal argument to bar segregation of the nation’s public schools, and he joined Dr. Martin Luther King in his 1965 march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

John Hope Franklin’s death is mourned in the medical community and in all sectors.