This year Duke University is celebrating the what would have been historian John Hope Franklin’s 100th birthday with a yearlong series of events and exhibits.
While Franklin was best known for his book From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, Duke University Press was proud to publish another of his classic texts, George Washington Williams: A Biography. The story of a controversial, self-made black intellectual who wrote the first history of African Americans in the United States, George Washington Williams was first published in 1985 and then brought back into print in a paperback edition in 1998. Awarded the Clarence L. Holte Literary Prize, the book, part biography and part social history, is a unique consideration of a pioneering historian by his most distinguished successor. Williams, who lived from 1849 to 1891, had a remarkable career as soldier, minister, journalist, lawyer, politician, freelance diplomat, and African traveler, as well as a historian. While Franklin reveals the accomplishments of this neglected figure and emphasizes the racism that curtailed Williams’s many talents, he also highlights the personal weaknesses that damaged Williams’s relationships and career.
In a New York Times review of the book, historian Ira Berlin states “One of the most significant achievements of Mr. Franklin’s biography is that it restores Williams to his proper place in the development of an American historiography.” The current exhibit at Duke’s Perkins Library, “John Hope Franklin: Imprint of an American Scholar,” includes a portion of a manuscript draft of George Washington Williams, and other materials of interest.
In 2008, John Hope Franklin spoke about the book at the John Hope Franklin Center. In the video below, he discusses how he came to research Williams, who was a pioneering African American historian in his own right.
Thanks to our friends at the Franklin Humanities Institute for alerting us to the video and archival materials.