One Historian's Life; John Hope Franklin Describes His Journey from Poverty to Eminence

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 15, 2006 | Go to article overview

One Historian's Life; John Hope Franklin Describes His Journey from Poverty to Eminence


Byline: Priscilla S. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

If distinguished historian John Hope Franklin were Japanese, he would long ago have been designated a National Treasure. As it is, he's a very American national treasure, and his unflinching autobiography, "Mirror to America," deserves to be read by every American.

His look back at the past 90 years of his life is both inspiring and sobering. How far we've come since he, his mother, and his sister - on their way to visit his father, who was working in Tulsa - were thrown off a train because they had inadvertently boarded the coach for whites only. Yet how far we have to go in changing individual mindsets: He recalls how, not long ago, a white woman, mistaking him for the cloakroom attendant at the Cosmos Club, asked him to fetch her coat.

John Hope Franklin has made his own way to the top of his profession through determination and hard work, and he has never forgotten any kindness to him - and there were many, as well as slights or insults - along the way.

Despite growing up in what he demonstrates was "abject poverty" in segregated Oklahoma, he had the advantage of devoted and well-educated parents (they had attended the same college in Tennessee). His father was a lawyer but his clients were too poor to pay him; his mother was a teacher, and John Hope learned to read as a toddler while sitting at the back of her first-grade classroom because she had no other place to leave him.

Throughout his youth the boy took any job he could find, from delivering newspapers to washing dishes and working in a funeral home, in order to pay his way to education. At 16 he earned a tuition scholarship to Fisk University and worked as a secretary/clerk-typist on campus to pay for his board.

He was a go-getter from the beginning: In his first week at Fisk he auditioned for and was accepted into the college choir. His (white) history professor, Ted Currier, coached him in debating, which exposed him to travel to the North and East and augmented the self-confidence his parents had instilled. Currier encouraged Mr. Franklin to apply to Harvard for his graduate work, and borrowed the $500 the young man needed to get there (Harvard offered him no money).

One of the most poignant stories Mr. Franklin tells concerns the lynching of a local teenager during Mr. Franklin's junior year at Fisk. Stricken by the murder, Mr. Franklin and other Fisk students drafted an anti-lynching petition they wished to present to President Roosevelt when he visited the campus en route to Warm Springs. …

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