June 19, 2019
When John Hope Franklin and Pepsi Made a Black History RecordHistorians in the News
tags: pop culture
Joshua Clark Davis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Baltimore. His book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (Columbia University Press, 2017) examines how natural foods stores, head shops, feminist businesses, and African American booksellers emerged from social movements in the 1960s to advance the goals of political transformation and cultural liberation. Follow him on Twitter @JoshClarkDavis.
A decade after his death, John Hope Franklin remains among the most prominent historians to ever chronicle the African American past. Franklin’s 1947 masterpiece From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes has been translated into multiple languages and has sold over three million copies—the kind of sales figures that most authors only dream about. Franklin is the only African American historian to have received a Presidential Medal of Honor, from Bill Clinton in 1997. Franklin’s remarkable legacy can also be seen in his many doctoral students who went on to publish their own groundbreaking historical works.
Franklin was also renowned for his engagement of the public beyond academia. From Slavery to Freedom was published not by a university press but by Alfred A. Knopf, a major trade publisher that since the 1920s has enjoyed a reputation for embracing the works of African American authors, most prominently Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes. In the early 1950s, Franklin provided his services to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in preparation of its lawsuit for Brown v. Board of Education. And in February 1965, Franklin joined civil rights protestors in their march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
But perhaps one of Franklin’s more surprising acts of public engagement, and one that is almost entirely forgotten today, is a record he helped produce for Pepsi-Cola in 1966, Adventures in Negro History, Vol. II: The Frederick Douglass Years, 1817-1895. Released in 1966, the record was the second in a trilogy of LPs produced by Pepsi from 1963 to 1969 as part of a marketing campaign to boost the company’s standing with African American consumers.
Franklin appears to have been the first historian hired as a consultant for the series, as the inaugural disc, Adventures in Negro History, names no historian consultant. In 1969, Pepsi produced a third record for the series, The Afro-American’s Quest for Education: A Black Odyssey. This time Professor Elsie M. Lewis, the chair of Howard University’s history department, served as the historical consultant.
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