• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Man Who Changed History

On October 27, 2005, John Hope Franklin and President Bill Clinton spoke at the New York Public Library before an overflow crowd about the themes of Franklin’s autobiography Mirror to America. Such a conspicuous, unique launch for his autobiography can be contrasted with Franklin’s start in life, recorded in his father’s diary as follows: “The year 1915 was uneventful, except for the same grinding poverty…. This year’s strain was agrivated [sic] by the birth of a child, John Hope.” Nineteen years later, John Hope went to buy ice cream in a Mississippi store, whereupon

As I walked out onto the store’s porch, a crowd of white men formed a U shape in front of the building. They blocked every avenue of escape…. I stood in silence for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally, their spokesman asked, in what was presumably his best hill country drawl, what were we doing in Noxubee County. I said something about examining the economic condition of Negro cotton farmers. There was another long silence. Then, he pointedly asked if I feared that I would be lynched. There was no safe answer. Any reply would have been a challenge. Mute, still, I waited. One of them finally said something that I did not hear but it must have been an order or a suggestion that they should not bother with the likes of me. The line broke, I walked slowly to the car, got in it, and raced back to Sweet Potato Hill.

Again, on the evening before President Clinton recognized his lifelong achievements by awarding John Hope Franklin in his eightieth year the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he encountered yet another slight:

I gave a dinner for a small group of friends at the Cosmos Club. It was during our stroll through the club that a white woman called me out, presented me with her coat check, and ordered me to bring her coat.

Yet Franklin also tells about Theodore S. Currier, a professor of history at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, who was the first “white man who treated me as his social and intellectual equal” and became his “mentor, major professor, and closest friend.” Because of Currier’s influence, he decided not to follow his father into the law but instead chose an academic career in history.

This was not an easy choice. Currier, who never finished his own Ph.D. at Harvard, helped Franklin win admission to graduate study in Harvard’s history department and actually borrowed money from a Nashville bank to allow his prize student to finance his first semester in Cambridge. Once there,

A day, and often an hour, didn’t go by without my feeling the color of my skin—in the reactions of white Cambridge…. As had been true all my life, being ambitious and black guaranteed that I would stand out.

And stand out he did, receiving an “A” from Professor Arthur Schlesinger (senior) for his paper on a Congregational minister and writer named Lyman Abbott and an “A minus” from James Phinney Baxter III for a seminar paper on “The Movement to Annex British Columbia to the United States, 1868–1880.” Franklin was determined to qualify as an American historian by choosing to write on “a non-Negro subject and compete with the students on material where it was not perceived that I had some inherent advantage.”

He washed dishes in an undergraduate club in return for meals and worked as a typist for Elliott Perkins, tutor at Lowell House, who was writing his Ph.D. dissertation for the department:

When I took the job I knew neither that he was descended from America’s famous Adams family nor that his father was the influential banker Charles Elliot Perkins, who sat on the Harvard Board of Overseers. Elliott was delighted that I could correct his spelling and on occasion even his grammar, and in time we developed a lifelong friendship.

Yet in spite of these and other part-time jobs, Franklin ran out of money during his second semester and had to get a short-term loan from the associate dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “I was in arrears on rent, food, and laundry and this money proved a lifesaver.”

Consequently, despite solid academic success, a combination of intense loneliness and indebtedness persuaded Franklin in the spring of 1936 “to leave the university for a year in order to earn money with which to repay Ted Currier’s loan. Further, the way I intended to do it was by replacing him at Fisk for a year.” Though only twenty-one, he had no difficulty in winning the respect of his students and he sums up his year of teaching at Fisk as follows:

I lived on a very tight budget, especially since I was determined before the end of the academic year to pay my debts in full to Ted Currier and to President Gandy. I enjoyed the teaching much more than I expected, especially since I was carrying a full five course load and had so many preparations that I sometimes worked almost around the clock. I was determined to be as well informed and as carefully prepared as I possibly could be, and it is not hyperbole to say that I learned at least as much during my year of teaching at Fisk as I had learned in my first year at Harvard.

These years radically changed the life of John Hope Franklin. His accomplishments as student and teacher relieved the poverty that had hindered him earlier, for he returned to Harvard in 1937 holding not one but two fellowships—one from the Rosenwald Foundation and the other from Harvard University itself. It was no longer necessary for him to wash dishes in return for meals. Just as important, Franklin had established himself within the white world of Harvard as a man of superior intellectual capacity—a reputation confirmed in his second year when a paper about the New England socialist and writer Edward Bellamy, written for Professor Schlesinger, appeared in The New England Quarterly:

The remainder of the year passed without any other significant event. Indeed, nothing could have occurred to surpass the fact that I, as a second-year graduate student, had published a research paper in a reputable journal.

Yet he did not feel comfortable at Harvard. “I never could abide the clubby, insulated world that cocooned so many of my fellow Harvard graduate students, and I will admit it often honed an edge on my own ambitions.” By the time he passed his oral examination for the Ph.D.,

I wanted to get away from Cambridge and Boston as soon as possible. In a great many respects, the two and a half years I had spent there had been stifling. I was greatly disturbed by Harvard’s prevalent anti-Semitism…. I also began to wonder why I had never been offered a teaching assistantship, especially since I had performed at the very top of both of my seminars and in some of the lecture courses…. I needed more teaching experience, which, it was hard for me not to conclude, Harvard had denied me because of my color.

For his dissertation he gave up writing on subjects that were usually addressed by white graduate students and instead chose “The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1700–1865.” This was a wholly unexplored topic. Two years later, after engaging in extensive research in archives and then writing up his findings while also teaching at a black college in North Carolina, Franklin scheduled his final examination in May 1941. When the examining committee met, Paul Buck and Arthur Schlesinger, the professors who had read and approved his thesis, declared they had no questions to ask, since they judged it worthy of publication exactly as it was. The third examiner turned his questioning into a game by inviting Franklin to sketch six lectures on American labor history for delivery at Oxford to what was then still a notoriously ill-informed British academic audience. The others soon chimed in with suggestions and the exam closed with questions about his future plans for research and writing. Franklin had been anxious ahead of time and was much relieved to find “My committee made it clear that I had more than survived—I had done credit to myself and to Harvard.”

Altogether, John Hope Franklin’s achievement was extraordinary, attesting to his high intelligence, superior mastery of language—both written and spoken—and above all his capacity to work long hours without wasting a moment. Later in his life, when I first met him, his physical presence was also distinctive. Tall, slender, and erect, Franklin had about him an aura that I can only describe as aristocratic—courteous, confident, and capable, he struck those who met him as a natural leader. I was amazed by this at the time, and find it striking still in view of the extreme poverty and uncertainty of his early childhood that he describes in Mirror to America. His parents, he tells us, were resolved “to pursue lives of dignified self-determination” and sought it vainly in an all-black town called Rentiesville where a dominant Baptist faction “sought to curry favor with the whites” living in nearby towns. When his Methodist parents challenged that approach, they were bitterly opposed.

His father, Buck Franklin, had passed the Oklahoma bar examination in 1908, but could not find enough clients who were able to pay for his legal services in Rentiesville, so in 1921 he decided to leave his family behind and try to make a living as a lawyer in Tulsa. His timing was unfortunate, for Buck arrived just before a race riot devastated Tulsa’s black ghetto. His new office and papers were burned and it was four years before the family could reunite in Tulsa, during which time John Hope was raised by his mother.

She taught school, and, when John Hope was three,

it proved easiest for her to bring me to school with her. She placed me at a school desk, gave me a sheet of paper and a pencil, and admonished me to be quiet. I was enthralled with the classroom, the pictures on the wall, the blackboard, and the animated responses of my mother’s first-grade students.

As a result, “well before the age of five I could read and write.”

She taught him much else. He describes how, when he was six, his mother refused to move to the “Negro coach” on the Katy Railroad because “she would not take two small children from one coach to another in a moving train.” The conductor, he writes, then stopped the train and “ejected us” from it. When John Hope cried, his mother

reminded me that while the law required us to be kept separated from whites and usually placed in inferior accommodations, there was not a white person on that train or anywhere else who was any better than I was. She admonished me not to waste my energy by fretting but to save it in order to prove that I was as good as any of them.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print