John Hope Franklin: He changed how Americans view their own past

Historians in the News

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN is among a handful of scholars who have changed the way Americans view their past. It wasn't so long ago that mainstream histories of the United States ignored the experience of minorities or employed the sort of stereotypes that most readers today would find offensive. An African-American, raised and educated in an era of stifling race prejudice and legal segregation, Franklin, now 90 years old, has spent his career exposing the bigotry that once dominated American intellectual life and continues to infect society at large. His scholarship is his weapon.

"Mirror to America" is a riveting and bitterly candid memoir. Born in an all-black Oklahoma town in 1915, Franklin can remember his mother, a teacher, riding a horse to work "with a pistol in her saddlebag to protect herself from wolves or some vagabond who might attempt to molest her." In 1921 his father, an attorney, moved to Tulsa to open a law practice and buy a home for the family. A few months later, the black section of that city was demolished in one of the bloodiest race riots in American history. His father lost everything, postponing the family move for four years. In Tulsa, Franklin encountered a seething racism that kept the black community in a state of perpetual unease. There "was never a moment in any contact I had with white people," he writes about this time, "that I was not reminded that society as a whole had sentenced me to abject humiliation for the sole reason that I was not white."

A superb student, Franklin won a scholarship to Fisk, a distinguished black university in Nashville, where he intended to study law. There he met the two most influential people in his adult life: Theodore S. Currier, a young, white faculty member who would fuel Franklin's interest in "Negro history," and Aurelia Whittington, the woman who would become Franklin's wife and inseparable companion for the next 60 years. At Fisk, he recalls, "I became known as the person who had disciplined himself to the point of letting nothing interfere with his studies." When Currier learned that his favorite student had been admitted to graduate school in history but lacked the funds to attend, he borrowed $500 and placed it in Franklin's hand. "Money," he declared, "will not keep you out of Harvard!"

Having never lived among whites, Franklin navigated the Harvard campus of the 1930's like an anthropologist on an exotic field trip. On a given day, he might attend Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr.'s seminar in American intellectual history and then walk to the law school to hear Felix Frankfurter lecture about the Constitution. But he can still recall the "darky" jokes that were told in his history classes. And he could hardly believe the shabby treatment endured by the handful of Jewish students in the program (including his friend Oscar Handlin). Prejudice, he discovered, came in many forms....

Read entire article at NYT Book Review

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