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.

This, I infer, was one of the central lessons John Hope Franklin learned from his Oklahoma childhood; his achievement and extraordinary personal bearing in white society that so impressed me years later clearly owed much to his parents’ example.

He met his future wife, Aurelia Whittington, when they were students at Fisk and married her only when Aurelia decided to disappoint her parents in North Carolina by leaving them for a life of her own with John. They married in June 1940 and she at once became his research assistant and remained his devoted counselor until her death, which occurred “on Wednesday, January 27, 1999, the 121st anniversary of my mother’s birth.” Without doubt, these two remarkable women had much to do with Franklin’s success. His debt to his father is less evident in Mirror to America, but a blurred photograph shows that he shared Franklin’s slender build and aristocratic manner.

After his Harvard years, Franklin’s academic career was assured. Initially, he taught at two black colleges in North Carolina, St. Augustine’s in Raleigh and North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham. Then in 1947 he joined Howard University in Washington, D.C., “regarded as the ‘final’ institution for Negro scholars” at the time. After summer teaching at both Harvard and Cornell, Franklin then broke through the color line in 1956 by accepting an invitation to become chairman of the history department at Brooklyn College. The New York Times reported his appointment in a front-page story, making him at least a local celebrity. Then in 1964 I had the satisfaction, largely owing to the initiative of his fellow Tulsan Daniel Boorstin, of inviting him to join the University of Chicago, where he succeeded me as chairman of the history department and retired at age sixty-five in 1980. He then returned to Durham, North Carolina, where Duke University soon appointed him James B. Duke Professor of History, a position from which he only recently retired.

Throughout his career, Franklin devoted careful, sympathetic attention to his many students and prepared conscientiously for meeting every class. This was no small feat, since from the time he got to Brooklyn he was a marked man—a black professor who seemed to move serenely in white academic society, and commanded ever-increasing respect. He was soon besieged by invitations to lecture, to consult, and to advise—and sometimes merely to appear—before an enormous variety of public and private bodies, usually concerned with race relations in the United States.

But as he revealed in his talk with President Clinton at the New York Public Library, his relations with whites in Brooklyn were anything but serene. “How,” he asked, “do you explain the fact that here in New York City, even when I was Chairman of the History Department at Brooklyn College, no real estate dealer in Brooklyn would even show me a house?” When he finally found a place to live, his young son, he said, was “hounded by the neighbors who were sending a message through him that I was not welcome in the neighborhood.” He could, he said, be chairman of the department in which there were fifty-two white people, “but I wasn’t good enough to live in that community.” He reflected that he would be “naive to believe that there had been some transformation of the people in that community within the last twenty-five or thirty years, or forty years.”*

Still, during the convulsions over race relations during the 1950s and 1960s, John Hope Franklin became a public figure on a national scale, gathering many honorary degrees, some 137 in all, according to an interview published in The Charlotte Observer; but the only honorary degree he mentions in Mirror to America is the one from Harvard, awarded in 1981. So far as I could tell during the sixteen years I was his colleague at Chicago, Franklin never sought the honors and advisory positions that came his way, but he accepted them, sometimes reluctantly, in the hope that by doing so he might forward the cause of racial reconciliation and progress toward equality to which he was fiercely committed. He never wavered, however, in preferring an academic to a public career, resisting positions in government because he “did not to want to be used merely to paper over or mislead the world regarding the state of race relations in the United States.”

Academic historians like to think that writing books is the primary measure of their worth, and despite all the distractions his public prominence put in his path, Franklin met that expectation by publishing no fewer than ten books based on original research and seven more in collaboration with others, often his former students. Such a record is unusual even for the most diligent scholars. He demonstrated what he was capable of when he wrote his most famous and influential work, From Slavery to Freedom, between March 1, 1946, the day he agreed to undertake the task, and April 1, 1947, when he submitted a finished manuscript to Knopf of some 240,000 words for publication. During almost half that period he was also teaching full time. On the strength of an advance of $250 from the publisher, he decided to take a leave without pay from North Carolina College in order to work full-time on the book, and, he writes, his wife, Aurelia, who worked as a librarian, offered to “supplement the advance in order to make it possible for me to work in Washington” at the Library of Congress. Once he was established there, “The speed with which my research and writing progressed was not only satisfactory but quite surprising even to me who had long wanted such an opportunity to work without interruption.” Roger Shugg, the editor of the book, later told Franklin “how shocked he had been when…he realized that I would make the deadline of April 1.”

The feat remains amazing, since Franklin was revising American national history in a serious way by showing how Negroes, previously systematically disregarded by historians, were active participants in the American past. To be sure, he had taught courses in Negro history in black colleges for several years; and found inspiration (and information) in a long-forgotten book by George Washington Williams, History of the Negro Race, published in two volumes in 1882, whose author eventually became the subject of a book by Franklin. But in its essentials the presentation of the American past that Franklin set forth in From Slavery to Freedom was his own and profoundly new. As he wrote in the preface to the first edition,

But the history of the Negro in America is essentially the story of the strivings of nameless millions who have sought adjustment in a new and sometimes hostile world…. I have given considerable attention to the task of tracing the interaction of the Negro to the American environment. It can hardly be denied that the course of American history has been vitally affected by his presence. At the same time it must be admitted that the effect of acculturation on the Negro in the United States has been so marked that today he is as fully American as any member of other ethnic groups that make up the American population.

That black slaves and their descendants were just as much American as any other ethnic group and had interacted socially, intellectually, and culturally with whites for centuries may seem obvious historical truths today; but in 1947 it was radically new to give detailed accounts of the participation of blacks in the country’s expansion, its wars, its culture, and its economic development. This demonstration remains John Hope Franklin’s principal contribution to changing the prevailing conceptions of the history of the United States. His account of history is widely taught in schools and colleges and is likely to matter more in times to come than anything else Franklin ever did. His comparative youth and the headlong speed with which he wrote From Slavery to Freedom are truly extraordinary, but the book’s informing spirit—the cool tone, analytic insight, and breadth of human sympathy that pervade it—was the product of thirty-two years of often painful experience and decades of hard work in school, college, and university.

Yet, perhaps just because it departed so sharply from prevailing notions, the book was slow to make its way. Franklin tells us that From Slavery to Freedom was “on the whole, well received” by reviewers, despite a poisonous attack in The New York Times; yet soon “it became quite clear that the author’s and publisher’s enthusiasm for the book was not immediately shared by the buying and reading public. Fortunately, both were prepared to await the public’s change of attitude.” Eventually, public attitudes changed, especially after 1969 when the third edition came out in paperback. Sales soared and the book became widely used in college classes, as it still is today. By 2005 cumulative sales had reached 3.5 million—an amazing figure, since From Slavery to Freedom tells white Americans much that they are reluctant to acknowledge about their past and present.

With the exception of a collaborative textbook that was not widely adopted after it “became the target of virtually every right-wing group” in the state of California, Franklin’s other books are more specialized and some, like The Militant South, 1800–1860 and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Ante-bellum North, deal entirely with whites, for he never abandoned his ambition of studying (and teaching) the history of American society as a whole. Most of his books, however, focus on personalities or episodes in black history, presumably because he recognized how African-Americans had been so generally neglected.

Of all his lesser books George Washington Williams: A Biography occupies a special place, for, as he tells us, “I must admit that I came to identify with him.” Williams was a Civil War soldier and a minister, as well as a journalist, politician, African traveler, and historian. Franklin had, in 1945, stumbled on his book A History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers and as Citizens.

Then just starting his own large work, Franklin immediately recognized Williams as a fellow spirit about whom next to nothing was known. Decades of research in odd moments of Franklin’s busy career eventually turned up enough information to reconstruct the main events of Williams’s short and adventurous life between 1848 and 1891, though gaps remained and key documents were missing. Nonetheless, Franklin was able to resurrect a fascinating personality and assess his tumultuous career. “Writing his biography had become not only my longest pursuit of a subject but my favorite pastime, and as I reached the conclusion…I was in equal measure elated and saddened.”

It is too soon to tell what the cumulative effect on American society of Franklin’s teaching, writing, speaking, and personal example will be. But it is hard to believe that future generations will ever again overlook the part African-Americans played in shaping our national history, as was systematically done before From Slavery to Freedom appeared. More than any other single historian, John Hope Franklin corrected that grotesque distortion of our past, and his books will continue to do so as long as they are read. That is a great achievement and the numerous public honors mentioned in his autobiography rightly acknowledge that fact.

But Franklin’s fervent hope of altering behavior and achieving racial harmony remains elusive. In the epilogue of Mirror to America, he expresses his disappointment:

From the very beginning of my own involvement in the academy, the goal I sought was to be a scholar with credentials as impeccable as I could achieve. At the same time I was determined to be as active as I could in the fight to eradicate the stain of racism that clouded American intellectual and academic life even as it poisoned other aspects of American society. Both challenges were formidable. While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship, I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations. It never ceased being a risky feat of tight-rope walking, but I always believed that if I could…improve society it was incumbent on me to make the attempt. Thus, in addition to teaching and writing, I served as an expert witness in cases designed to end segregation in education…and I marched in Montgomery to make common cause with those who sought in other ways to destroy racial hatred and bigotry.

What seemed a good chance to make a difference in practice came in 1997 when President Clinton invited Franklin to chair “the advisory board to the President’s Initiative on Race.” Family considerations made him hesitate, but in the end he succumbed to

the excitement of receiving a presidential appointment and meeting the people who would be my colleagues on the board. With the naïveté that always accompanies optimism, we were embarking, with the full support of the executive office, on a sincere effort to confront and further erase the color line in America.

But after a year’s strenuous effort, and numerous public meetings, the board’s final report, One America in the 21st Century: Forging a New Future, received little attention and it is hard to find a copy today. The report “set forth in quite specific terms” proposals for, among much else, enforcing civil rights, improving the education of minorities, combatting racial stereotypes, and extending health care, and it advocated a “presidential call to action” that would mobilize leaders from throughout American society. But Clinton’s impeachment proceedings captured public attention, and little was done to implement the report. Franklin writes—perhaps naively, perhaps stubbornly—“that the nation’s consciousness regarding the importance as well as the gravity of the race problem was raised considerably by what the board attempted.”

President Clinton’s recent appearance with John Hope Franklin at the New York Public Library on Mirror to America may have been his way of repaying him for the failure of his race initiative. At any rate, the two tried for an evening to continue the “serious dialogue on race” Clinton had promised Franklin when he appointed him to the advisory board. But the transcript of their remarks—in which, for example, Franklin emphatically pointed out that blacks have long been denied the housing loans that would mitigate de facto segregation—suggests how much remains to be done before black Americans have anything like the freedom and the resources to be both different and equal.

By that measure, Franklin’s hope and lifelong effort to transform American society remains unfulfilled. Nonetheless, paths have opened for African-Americans into professional and business careers that once were closed by legal discrimination and threat of force; and some changes in public consciousness—sometimes expressed in intensified confrontations—are also undeniable. Franklin’s own part in making a more conspicuous place for African-Americans in our national history is clear. Whether that may eventually alter American behavior we cannot know. But his work can only help to assuage injustice; and his personal achievement is far more significant than any of his contemporaries among American historians can claim.

Mirror to America tells how he did it. That is well worth knowing; but its greatest value to me was to let me glimpse what it is like to be black in America today, while pursuing a career very similar to my own. I often wondered as I walked the streets of Chicago’s Hyde Park, where blacks and whites mingled uneasily, how I would feel and act if my skin were not white. For sixteen years, Franklin walked those same streets, and taught in the same place I did. His autobiography does not answer my question, but it allows me to realize more vividly than before how inwardly different, while outwardly similar, our lives remained.

One America, or two? All of us should ponder the book’s closing words. Writing of the need to rescue young African-Americans from “the brink of dismal failure,” he writes that

it was national policy that permitted its citizens to badger them, goad them, and humiliate them to the point that they could not be easily reached. But they must be reached, through legislation, goodwill, understanding, and compassion. The test of an advanced society is not in how many millionaires it can produce, but is how many law-abiding, hardworking, highly respected, and self-respecting loyal citizens it can produce. The success of such a venture is a measure of the success of our national enterprise.

  1. *

    These quotations are from the transcript of the “Live from the New York Public Library” program on October 27. A video of the conversation is available at the library’s Web address: www.nypl.org/research/chss/pep/past.cbm.