John Hope Franklin: Mentor and Confidante

Article excerpt

On the evening of 25 March 2009, I was sitting quietly in my office at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, oblivious to the world, pondering an upcoming presentation on African American women, suffrage, and partisan politics in the 19th century, when the telephone rang and interrupted my train of thought. Answering the call, I was warmed by the soft voice of a long-time friend who asked, "Have you heard the news about John Hope Franklin?" Somewhat perplexed, I answered, "What news?" The response was quick and unembellished, "He has passed." Those simple words engendered a torrent of emotions, ranging from sadness to a deep sense of loss. It is difficult to express how I felt at that moment. But, I hung up the phone, sat, and stared out the window onto the plaza leading to the Ronald Reagan Building and the Woodrow Wilson Center. It was at that moment that I began to reflect upon my long relationship with John Hope Franklin.

Who was John Hope Franklin, and what was he to me? Speaking with friends and fellow historians since his death, I have found that Dr. Franklin's relationship with many of my peers was very different--more formal and less personal. For me, he was a scholar of the highest order and a treasured friend who over the course of over four decades became a confidante and a mentor by choice. He was a pioneering historian and a scholar of southern and African American history who wrote the definitive text on the black experience in the United States. Dr. Franklin's influence on my life and career is immeasurable. Though his overall scholarship did not focus on my primary areas of research and writing, From Slavery to Freedom had a great impact on my teaching. It was and is the single best text on the African American experience.

His life and experiences, spanning over 94 years, intersected with all of the major themes in 20th-century African American history. He not only studied and chronicled history, he also made it. He was a scholar and activist who relished the idea of contributing to the eradication of legal racial segregation. Serving as an expert witness in the Lyman Johnson v. the University of Kentucky case in 1949, writing historical essays for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education litigation, participating in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, testifying before the U.S. Senate against the confirmation of Robert Bork as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and demythologizing United States and southern history, John Hope Franklin willingly thrust himself into the center of controversy and challenged racist assumptions and practices. (1) His life was, as he so fittingly titled his autobiography, a Mirror to America. (2)

In September 1965 I enrolled in the M.A. program in history at Atlanta University. Dr. Clarence A. Bacote, chair of the Atlanta University history department, first introduced me to John Hope Franklin at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) held at Atlanta University, 21-23 October 1965. This meeting marked ASNLH's 50th anniversary. (3) As the director of local arrangements for the meeting, Professor Bacote chose several graduate students, mostly females, as hosts to greet the members as they arrived for the ASNLH's annual luncheon. As a young graduate student, barely out of undergraduate school, I was excited to attend such an august event with eminent historians. As I greeted the venerable Dr. Lorenzo Green and carried his cardboard suitcase into the room, I was oblivious to the historic significance of the event or the impact that the Association and several of the scholars would have on my life and the trajectory of my academic career. (4)

It was fortuitous that Dr. Bacote would choose me to sit at the head table with him; Professor John Hope Franklin, then at the University of Chicago; Dr. Samuel Z. Westerfield, former dean of the Atlanta University School of Business and the highest ranking African American in the U. …