John Hope Franklin: Dean of U.S. historians tells his story





These days, John Hope Franklin spends more time in the greenhouse behind his home than in library stacks.

"It's my favorite haunt," the historian says as he steps inside the hothouse, gray gravel crunching underfoot. "I come out here three or four times a day - not necessarily to work, but just to look and see and enjoy."

The humid air is alive with lacy ferns, spiny bromeliads and cascading streptacarpella. But they are only window dressing to his true passion - his collection of more than 300 orchids. Hanging from a piece of cork is an Aerangis, an orchid from Madagascar whose pale beige blossom is the size of a small spider. Nearby, a vanilla plant snakes 7 feet up a wooden support.

And then there are his pride and joy: Phaelanopsis Aurelia Franklin, a diminutive yellow orchid, "long-suffering and tolerant," named for his late wife; and Laeliocattleya John Hope Franklin, a long-stemmed, lavender-blossomed hybrid that he says is like himself, "big and ungainly."

Franklin fell in love with orchids because "they're full of challenges, mystery" - the same reasons he fell in love with history.

"To grow orchids, you have to be persistent, patient," he says, picking a dead, yellow bloom from a plant. "And to do the right kind of history, the kind of history I think is worth doing, of course, you have to be persistent AND patient and work hard."

His autobiography, "Mirror to America," which comes out this week, reveals a man who has been as much a participant in history as a chronicler of it.

Franklin helped Thurgood Marshall on the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. He became the first black historian to assume a full-professorship at a white college, and chaired President Clinton's Initiative on Race.

But it is his works, more than his deeds, that have earned the 90-year-old historian 137 honorary degrees ("obscene, don't tell anyone"), the NAACP's Spingarn Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. His landmark "From Slavery to Freedom," published in 1947 has sold more than 3.5 million copies and remains required reading in college classrooms.

"I would compare him to Carter Woodson and W.E.B. Du Bois," says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon Litwack, who served as a graduate assistant when Franklin taught at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956, and has remained a fast friend.

"What he did was to demonstrate to a very skeptical and rather sometimes indifferent profession ... that the history of black Americans was a legitimate field for scholarly inquiry and investigation."


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