Historian Recounts His Life, Impact of Race on America's Last Century

By Ransby, Barbara | The Crisis, November/December 2005 | Go to article overview

Historian Recounts His Life, Impact of Race on America's Last Century


Ransby, Barbara, The Crisis


BOOKS Historian Recounts His Life, Impact of Race on America's Last Century Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin By John Hope Franklin (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $25)

Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin is the long-awaited memoir by one of the most distinguished and highly regarded African American scholars of the 20th century. I could say one of the most distinguished "American" scholars, but I chose to modify this distinction because if we are reminded of anything in reading Franklin's amazing life story, it is the profound impact that race has had on his scholarship and his Life. He was an educated and accomplished Black man in America at a time when it was difficult and dangerous to be just that. Now, at age 90, Franklin looks back over his life and takes stock. In the process he offers readers a lens through which to view, and perhaps rethink, much of 20th century American history.

Who is John Hope Franklin? He is an esteemed Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University, onetime chair of the History Department at the University of Chicago, and mentor to hundreds of young historians. Born in 1915 in the all-Black town of Rentiesville, OkIa., Franklin spent most of his childhood in Tulsa. His parents were educated people with professional jobs; his mother was a teacher and his father a lawyer and later postmaster, but this did not insulate them from racism.

"I grew up in a racial climate that was stifling to my senses and damaging to my emotional health and social well-being," Franklin writes. He and his three siblings experienced racism when they ventured out of Rentiesville and later on the streets of Tulsa. Once his mother and the children were physically ejected from a train for sitting in a car reserved for Whites only. His father's law office was torched during the 1921 Tulsa race riot. Still, Franklin's parents were ambitious and resilient people who were determined that their children go as far in life as they could.

Education was a familly priority, and Franklin succeeded despite the odds against him. He graduated valedictorian from Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High School, where he was senior class president and had a starring role in the school play. He was off to Fisk University in Nashville at age 16. At Fisk Franklin planned to prepare for a legal career but a captivating young professor, Theodore Currier, got him interested in history. He switched his major from English to history and his intellectual journey had begun.

A graduate of Fisk University in 1935, he later received his Ph.D. from Harvard and went on to teach at several historically Black colleges, including Howard University. He has served as the president of prominent professional organizations, is author or editor of a dozen books and numerous articles, and the recipient of 100 honorary degrees and a plethora of other awards. He has traveled and lectured around the world, and he served as chair of President Bill Clinton's special initiative on race, which began its work in 1997.

Professor Franklin began his academic career when Jim Crow segregation was the law of the land and most Black people were blocked from voting by poll taxes, literacy tests, various forms of economic coercion and violence. Franklin's long and illustrious career was not an easy road, and his success did not come without a price. Patience, perseverance and endurance of insults and humiliations were Franklin's dues along the way.

When he went on one of his first research trips to the Louisiana State Archives in 1945, he discovered upon arrival that African Americans were barred from using the archives. Fate intervened. Since he arrived on a holiday - it was the end of World War II and the nation was celebrating the defeat of fascism - an exception was made and Franklin was allowed to use the archives while the building was otherwise closed.

On the same trip, at another facility, an archivist, obviously used to punctuating her speech with unchecked racial epithets, told Franklin he didn't look like one of those "Harvard niggers.

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