David Jarmul, a spokesman for Duke University, where Franklin was James B. Duke professor of history emeritus, said that he died in Duke Hospital, The Raleigh News & Observer reported.
In 1947, Franklin published "From Slavery to Freedom," a pioneering work. In the 1950s and 1960s, he did research for the NAACP including preparation for landmark desegregation cases that led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling to integrate schools and marched with Martin Luther King.
"He writes history and he is history," Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard said in a recent interview, calling Franklin his "intellectual godfather."
Born in Oklahoma, Franklin's early childhood experiences included trying to help a blind woman across the street, only to be told to take his "filthy hands" off her when she realized he was black. He graduated from Fisk University and received his doctorate from Harvard in 1941.
After teaching at historically black colleges, including Fisk and Howard University, Franklin became chair of the history department at Brooklyn College in 1956. He moved to the University of Chicago in 1966 and to Duke in 1983.