John Hope Franklin Tribute

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Tavis pays tribute to dean of African American historians.

Dr. John Hope Franklin was the dean of African American historians. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard and taught at a number of institutions, including his alma mater, Fisk University. A Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, he served on many national commissions and wrote numerous books, including From Slavery to Freedom, which was published in several languages, and his autobiography, Mirror to America. The Oklahoma native was Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University. He passed away at age 94.


Tavis: When John Hope Franklin was born in a small, all-Black town in eastern Oklahoma back in 1915, it’s hard to imagine the extraordinary American life that lay ahead of him. Through hard work and an unyielding sense of optimism, John Hope Franklin made his way out of the segregated south eventually to Harvard, and then to Brooklyn College as the first African American in the U.S. to lead a university history department.
In 1954 he was part of the team of scholars that helped Thurgood Marshall in the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education. Franklin also penned, of course, one of the seminal texts on race in America, called “From Slavery to Freedom.”
As I mentioned at the top, John Hope Franklin was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor back in 1995. At the ceremony, President Bill Clinton called Franklin “a moral compass for America, always pointing us in the direction of truth.”
Back in 2006, John Hope Franklin paid us a visit following the release of his acclaimed autobiography. I began our conversation then by asking him about the meaning of the title, “Mirror to America.”
[Begin film clip of 2006 John Hope Franklin interview.]
Tavis: When you title a book “Mirror to America,” there are a thousand ways I can go with this. So the first thing that hits my mind when the book came across my desk was to ask you, “Mirror To America -” when you step to the mirror, when I step to the mirror on any given morning, any given day, the minute I look in the mirror, there are certain things I see pretty quickly.
There are certain things that are rather obvious to me when I look at my face in the mirror in the morning. When you hold a mirror up to America, what do you see first? What stands out for you?
Dr. John Hope Franklin: I want them to see themselves and to ask themselves what kind of person or what kind of country am I? And I want them to be very honest in their answer. If they’re honest in their answer, they will say, “Well, I am selfish, I am presumptuous, I am not mindful of my brother. I have little charity.”
And I hope they say, “I want to improve myself. I want to be more just. I want to be more giving. I want to be sincere. I want people to have what I have. I want the people to be judged as I want to be judged.” And I think they will be seeing themselves as I would like for them to see themselves.
Tavis: Now, you know where I want to go now – when you paint that kind of picture, that’s like me, back to my formulation, getting up in the morning and seeing that crust in my eye and my hair all matted to my head and some cotton or something off my pillow in my hair. The point I’m making is when I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, I don’t always see such a pretty picture.
And that’s what you just painted. Now, when I see myself that way in the morning, I really don’t want to look that way. I’m not at my best. How do you get people to face that reality? Because nobody wants to see that, and what you just painted ain’t cute.
Franklin: Well, I know, but I want them to see that picture. And I want them, as a result, to see something that they can do to improve their appearance. And if they work hard, if they try hard, they might improve their appearance not only to themselves, but to the world.
Tavis: Are you hopeful, after all these years – you’re in your nineties now – are you hopeful at this point, after all that you have done and sacrificed and struggled, that we can convince persons to reexamine the assumptions that they hold?
Franklin: I am cautiously optimistic. I believe that with all of the talent and ability and strength that people in this country have, that they can use that not merely to further themselves but to improve the society in which they live, and to realize that their improvement of themselves is best assured by strengthening and improving the society in which they live.
Tavis: I couldn’t do justice to your 90 years in 90 minutes, and I ain’t got but 25 here. Let me try to hit the highlights, though, if I can, and let me go back to the beginning, or certainly near the beginning. Your parents were both educated, and insisted that you become educated. Obviously, they succeeded in that regard.
But how invaluable an experience, how precious a backdrop was it for you that at that time, you were very rare in that you had two parents who were both educated? I ask that because I wonder today how much better off we’d be if everybody had come out of the same situation that you were in.
Franklin: Yes, undoubtedly, they would be in a better situation. I am very fortunate, and I never stopped being thankful.
Tavis: Your father’s a lawyer.
Franklin: That my father was a lawyer, and that my mother was a schoolteacher, and it was a marvelous inheritance that I had. And the strength that they demonstrated in advising me how to face the future was all-important for me. And I could only hope that others would be so fortunate as I was.
Tavis: So one day, when you’re six years old, speaking of your mother and father advising you, you were six, and you and your mother are riding a train, and you find yourself sitting in the Whites-only section. Your mother and you are told to move, and your mother said, “We ain’t going to move,” and they threw y’all off the train.
Franklin: Yes. She wasn’t being a revolutionary. She was saying to the man that my children – and my sister was with me – “I can’t move these small children when the train is moving.” And so he said, “I’ll stop the train.”
But instead of letting us move to that little coach, that half coach up front near the engine, which I guess he had concluded that that was too good for us, he put us off the train, in the woods, and we had to trudge back to Rentiesville, which was our home.
Tavis: That was age six. At age 12, because your parents had taught little John to be respectful of his elders, you see a blind woman who happened to be White trying to cross the street. She’s blind, she’s White, she’s trying to cross the street. You go to help her. What happens?
Franklin: Well, I was a Boy Scout, and this was my opportunity to do that daily deed, the good deed that every Boy Scout should do. And I ran to tell her that I would be happy to help her across the street.
And she took my arm, she said, “Thank you so much.” We got in the middle of the street, and she said to me, “Are you Black or White?” I think she might have said, “Are you a Negro or White?” And I said, “I’m Negro.” She said, “Take your filthy hands off me,” And I took my hands off her. I don’t think they were filthy, but I took them off her anyway and I let her make her way back, or through, across the street, on her own.
The thing that ran through my mind was what had run through my mind when my mother advised me when I was six years old and we were put off the train. And I was crying and she said, “Don’t you cry. That man is just trying to do what he’s supposed to do, and that is humiliate us.”
She said, “But let me tell you one thing – don’t you cry. You take that energy, and with it, you prove that you’re as good as anybody on that train.” And that followed me from that day to this.
So that when I saw that blind woman, and when she rejected me because – I suppose because I was Colored – I’m sure that that came through my mind, that my mother had said, “You’re as good as anybody.” And although the woman, in her infirmity and in her distress, rejected me, I remembered Mama said, “You’re as good as anybody.”
Tavis: Well, you have spent a whole life proving your mama right. So let me fast forward to the time you are at Harvard. You’re about age 40 now with this particular story that I want you to share. You’re age 40, you’re at Harvard, and this ain’t Oklahoma at six on a train, this ain’t helping a White woman across the street at 12 – this is you at 40, at Harvard, and you get called a Harvard nigger.
Franklin: Well, I wasn’t called that at Harvard, I was called that in Alabama. But I had been a Harvard nigger. (Laughs) And Mrs. Marie Owen, who was the archivist of the state of Alabama at the time, and who had treated me cordially in so many ways – her staff had – I went in to see her to get special permission to see a document.
And she said, “They tell me there’s a Harvard nigger in the building. Have you seen him?” And her secretary, who could hear all of what we were talking about anyway, rushed in and said, “That’s him, Ms. Owen, that’s him.” And she looked up at me and she said, “You’re a Harvard nigger? I can’t imagine,” she said. “You don’t act like one.” Well, I didn’t know how a Harvard nigger was supposed to act. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, how’s a Harvard nigger supposed to act?
Franklin: So, she said, “You got right nice manners.” Well, I thought that if I was from Harvard, that wouldn’t spoil my manners. And so she said to me, “Sit down.” I’d been standing at that point because you don’t sit down in the presence of a White woman in the South unless she asks you to sit down, and she had not asked me at that point.
And she said, “Sit down,” and then we began to talk. And she said, “Where were you born and raised?” I said, “Oklahoma.” She said, “Oh, no.” She said, “You wouldn’t have those right nice manners from out there. Where did you go to college?” I said, “I went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.” She said, “That’s it. You had your good raising in a good old Confederate state.” And so, we became fast friends after that. (Laughter)
Tavis: You spend a great deal of time in this wonderful book talking about the journey – and it has been quite a journey – with regard to your teaching career. Spend a little time talking about your Cambridge years. I was fascinated to delve back into your past and realize that it started at Fisk, but you’ve been around the world, teaching.
Franklin: Yes – you mean Cambridge University.
Tavis: Absolutely.
Franklin: Yes. I was invited to be the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University, and they asked me when would I like to come? And I said, “I’d like to come in 1962 and ’63.” They said, “You’re on.” And so I went to Cambridge with my wife and my young son, who was 11 years old then – that’s John Wittington.
And we had a marvelous house that’s reserved for the Pitt professor, and I was given full standing as a fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, where I sat at the high table every evening in my gown and where I had digs, as they called it – a three-room suite where I could receive the students and so forth. We had a house, of course, as I said, in Chaucer Road, but this was a suite where I could entertain my students and so forth.
And I was given an honorary degree – that’s the only way you could teach at Cambridge if you didn’t have a Cambridge degree, and if you didn’t have one from Trinity College, Dublin, then they would give you a degree so you would be worthy to teach at Cambridge University.
And they gave me a degree and I taught there in the first term and then the second term, and the spring term you have off anyway. And it was an absolutely marvelous experience.
Tavis: What comparisons, Professor, do you recall making then between your teaching experience inside the United States and your teaching experience outside the United States, and how you were received and treated?
Franklin: Well, I was received most cordially at Cambridge. I would say that I was received most cordially in this country, wherever I had taught. I had taught at a number of institutions – Harvard and Cornell and the University Of Wisconsin and the University Of California, Berkeley – but only on short stints, you see? Not even a year – not even a year.
I taught for a summer or for a semester, and they would thank me and send me home, back to Howard University or wherever I happened to be teaching. But in Cambridge I was given the same honors that any visiting professor would be given – full honors, with fellowships and that sort of thing, very great and cordial invitations to attend the various colleges and to be their guest and to give lectures at the colleges and so forth, and to learn from me about what the level of education was in the United States, and what the problems of education were, and so forth.
I had never been treated so grandly, except in my own college. I went there from Brooklyn College in the City University of New York. I had been treated very well there. I was, by this time, as you’ve already mentioned, a full professor and chairman of the department. So that it was comparable to the kind of treatment I was receiving at Cambridge.
Tavis: I’ve mentioned a couple times in this conversation already, and certainly in the introduction, your classic text, “From Slavery to Freedom,” which was required reading when I was at Indiana University, and anybody who’d been to school and studied anything Black had to read your classic text, that seminal work, “From Slavery to Freedom.”
And I was blown away – I think I knew this, but I got reminded of it, of course, reading this text, “Mirror to America,” that as classic and as seminal as that text is, and all the other work that you have written, the “New York Times Book Review” had never reviewed a single piece of your work. Now I think it was – was it William McNeil, I think? McNeil may have been the one who said – I think it was McNeil who said that John Hope Franklin, more than any other historian, has changed history.
No less than McNeil says that about John Hope Franklin, that more than any other historian, Black or White, this guy has done more to change U.S. history. How was it that after all of these texts and all the books you’ve written, the “New York Times Book Review” had never reviewed not one piece of your work?
Franklin: I think the “New York Review of Books” had not reviewed it. The “New York Times” had reviewed even “From Slavery to Freedom.” The review was very, very unfavorable, and I was really crushed by the unfavorable review that was written in “The New York Times” in 1947.
It was the “New York Review of Books” that had never reviewed a book of mine until I made that observation in a letter to the editor. And of course from that time on they reviewed the books that I had written. But yes, it was my former colleague, William McNeil, who made the point that I had done more to change the study of the writing of American history than any other person.
Tavis: Why did you – and thanks for making that correction; I meant the “Review of Books,” I just had it flipped around there, so thank you for correcting me. Ninety years old and still sharp, correcting me on my misstatements here. That said, tell me why it is that you chose history.
There are any number of things you could have done, any number of other things that people did do to find a way to be of service to the movement, to be of service to the notion of advancing Black people. You chose the route of being a scholar, of being a historian. Why that route for you?
Franklin: It’s really interesting that you would ask me and to put it as you did, because my becoming a historian was the result of a White man who taught me at Fisk University. I went to college on my way to be a lawyer. That’s all I wanted to do was go back home and help my daddy. I thought we were poor because he was not a good businessman and I was going to become the lawyer who would take charge of the business.
I would collect the fees and all that and we would then be on Easy Street. I did not know that it was because he was a very, very – the country was in the midst of the very worst Depression in the history of the country. But that’s why we were poor, not because he was a poor businessman.
But when I went to Fisk and I heard this young White professor giving lectures, I was so excited, so thrilled, so impressed, so blown away, as we’d say, by the way in which he lectured about history, that I simply was moved beyond description.
And I then went to hear him give other lectures, and I decided to take a course. And when I took the course, I knew then that I wanted to be a historian. There was nothing that I had ever heard of that was more exciting, more driven in its intention of converting some persons and changing the world as this man did in his lectures.
So when I went home that summer between my sophomore and my junior years I said to my father, “Well, I got some news that I think you might not be very pleased with.” He said, “What is it?” I said, “Well, I’m not going to be a lawyer, I’m going to be a historian, and I hope you are not too disappointed.”
He said, “Well, I’m not disappointed.” He said, “It was you who said you wanted to be a lawyer in the first place. I never suggested that you be one.” He said, “And if you want to be something else, that’s all very good. Just be the best you can be in whatever it is you pursue.” And so with that I went back to Fisk, changed my major from English to history and political science to history, and then became a very close friend of this young White man, Theodore Currier, who then really prepared me to major in history.
To go from this place at Fisk to that place at Cambridge in Massachusetts, at Harvard, and there I just went on. And he borrowed the money in one of the Nashville banks and put it in my hand when we couldn’t raise the money for my going to Harvard. He said, “Money will not keep you out of Harvard. Here it is. Go.” And I went.
Tavis: Fast forward a few years later and Bill Clinton’s calling you to head his race commission. Was it worth you giving your time to that? You got so beat up by so many people. That commission started out so well-intentioned and it got caught up in his personal politics and a bunch of other mess. As you look back on it now, was it worth your time investing in it?
Franklin: Oh, yes, yes, it was. I think the country learned a lot. I learned a lot. I think it was not any more successful than it was because the people did not expect me to do much. Although they claimed – many of them claimed that the commission was to eliminate race prejudice in the United States. (Laughs)
That’s a big order, and it would take more than the advisory board on race and more than the president of the United States to say that this is the end of the line – all you prejudiced people get off, (laugh) because all of us are going to be – love each other as sisters and brothers, and that was not possible although there were people who felt that that’s the way it ought to go.
And they said, “You can’t do that.” Well, I couldn’t do it, but we did do something – we started a dialogue on race in every part of the United States. And there were literally hundreds and thousands of people who had never even discussed race in any objective or fair sense who did. They organized clubs and committees and all that sort of thing all over the United States.
And we traveled from one end of the country to the other, and I think we then did raise the consciousness of people and improved their outlook and their willingness to look at the problem of race and to say, “Well, maybe someday we can solve it.”
Tavis: It’s a perfect place to end, although I could do this for another few hours. Maybe we can solve it, but only if we get serious about it. Get serious about reading this book, “Mirror to America,” the autobiography of the one, the only, John Hope Franklin, who I’m honored to have had on this set. Professor, nice to see you.
Franklin: Nice to see you, Tavis. (Laughs)
[End film clip.]
Tavis: John Hope Franklin once said, “One lives by hope. It is not merely my middle name, it is my life. I live by hope.” This is surely the lasting legacy of a man who saw so much hatred as a child in segregated America. When Franklin was just a teenager, he was threatened one day with a lynching for having the audacity to walk into an ice cream parlor asking to be served.
But this quiet giant of a man channeled that hatred into the hope he spoke about so eloquently. One can only imagine the feeling he felt witnessing another African American being sworn in as president of the United States just a few weeks after his 94th birthday.

John Hope Franklin passed away this morning in Durham, North Carolina. We are all better for his life and for his love. Tonight we celebrate his legacy.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm