John Hope Franklin: Wa Po Review of His Memoir

Historians in the News

John Hope Franklin's story is the stuff of American legend. Born in Oklahoma 90 years ago, into a family that was making its way into the middle class, he graduated with distinction from Fisk University, then earned his doctorate in history at Harvard. He rose steadily through the teaching ranks, moving from North Carolina College to Howard University to Brooklyn University to the University of Chicago to Duke. He published scholarly works of distinction and originality, most notably From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (1947), which has sold 3.5 million copies. He achieved prosperity if not great riches, traveled the world, and was accorded numerous honors, among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

That Franklin takes justifiable pride in these and many other achievements is evident throughout Mirror to America , but it is pride tinged with disappointment and bitterness. Franklin is African American and has experienced too much of the bigotry to which black Americans even to this day are routinely subjected. He also has experienced tokenism and its many variations and offshoots, causing him to wonder at times whether all the advances he made were due to his own accomplishments and abilities or whether some were extended to him by whites and/or white institutions who wanted to use him as window-dressing -- whether he was hired not because he was the best but because, to borrow Stephen L. Carter's term, he was the "best black."

That this haunts Franklin even at this late hour of his life is understandable, but it is also regrettable, for his work stands confidently on its own, without benefit of patronizing or favoritism. Not merely is his scholarship exemplary by any standard -- by the highest standard -- but he has repeatedly demonstrated that, as he puts it, "an African American scholar could work in the mainstream of American history rather than be confined exclusively to subjects dealing with African Americans." More than just scholarship distinguishes his career. The "scholar in society" has been a lifelong concern of his, as envisioned and defined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his seminal essay "The American Scholar," to wit:

"From the very beginning of my own involvement in the academy, the goal I sought was to be a scholar with credentials as impeccable as I could achieve. At the same time I was determined to be as active as I could in the fight to eradicate the stain of racism that clouded American intellectual and academic life even as it poisoned other aspects of American society. . . . I always believed that if I could use my knowledge and training to improve society it was incumbent on me to make the attempt. Thus, in addition to teaching and writing, I served as an expert witness in cases designed to end segregation in education, most notably at the behest of Thurgood Marshall, and I marched in Montgomery to make common cause with those who sought in other ways to destroy racial hatred and bigotry."

Franklin came by his ambition, determination and activism honestly. His parents, Buck and Mollie Franklin, were accomplished -- his father was a lawyer, his mother a schoolteacher -- and set examples of "integrity and . . . high moral standards" by which all four of their children lived. Oklahoma in the 1920s and '30s was as segregated as any other place in the country (the Franklins moved to Tulsa not long after the deadly race riots of 1921), but the elder Franklins refused to knuckle under and repeatedly stressed to their children that the color of their skin had nothing to do with their abilities or aspirations.

Still, bigotry was an inescapable presence. When Franklin was at Fisk, a ticket agent "almost leaped through the ticket window and shouted to me that no 'nigger' would tell him how to make change." In Alabama in 1945, doing research at the state's archives, he was greeted by the chief archivist: "You don't look like a Harvard nigger to me!" Traveling the upper Midwest in 1953 with his wife and young son, he discovered that "I could not secure accommodations for my family anywhere in the state of Michigan" and had to cross into Canada, where the first motel at which they stopped had a room for them. Trying to buy a house in Brooklyn in the late 1950s, he was repeatedly rebuffed by realtors "unwilling to be the first to damage the 'integrity' of the neighborhood by selling a home to an African American." Even in 1995, the night before receiving his Medal of Freedom, after giving a dinner for a few friends at the Cosmos Club (of which he is a member), "a white woman called me out, presented me with her coat check, and ordered me to bring her coat."...

Read entire article at Jonathan Yardley in the Wa Po Book World

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