These days, Dr. John Hope Franklin spends more time in the greenhouse
with his collection of 300 orchids behind his home than in library
Franklin fell in love with orchids because “they’re full of challenges,
mystery” — the same reasons he fell in love with history.
His autobiography, Mirror to America, which comes out this week,
reveals a man who has been as much a participant in history as a
chronicler of it.
Franklin helped Thurgood Marshall on the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown
v. Board of Education. He became the first Black historian to assume a
full-professorship at a White college, and chaired President Clinton’s
Initiative on Race.
But it is his works, more than his deeds, that have earned the
90-year-old historian 137 honorary degrees (“obscene, don’t tell
anyone”), the NAACP’s Spingarn Award and the Presidential Medal of
Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. His landmark From Slavery
to Freedom, published in 1947 has sold more than 3.5 million copies and
remains required reading in college classrooms.
“I would compare him to Carter Woodson and W.E.B. Du Bois,” says
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon Litwack, who served as a graduate
assistant when Franklin taught at the University of California,
Berkeley, in 1956, and has remained a fast friend.
“What he did was to demonstrate to a very skeptical and rather
sometimes indifferent profession … that the history of Black
Americans was a legitimate field for scholarly inquiry and
Mirror is Franklin’s 15th book, and the first he wrote on a computer. All but one are still in print.
He was born Jan. 2, 1915, in the all-Black town of Rentiesville, Okla.,
and later attended historically Black Fisk University, where he met his
wife Aurelia Whittington. The lively lectures of a White professor, Ted
Currier, convinced him that history was his field. Currier borrowed
$500 to send Franklin to Harvard University for graduate studies.
The resulting work, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860, earned
Franklin his doctorate and, in 1943, became his first published book.
Four years later, he completed his seminal work, From Slavery to
Freedom, and accepted a job at Howard University.
He went on to break numerous color barriers, but some of his greatest moments of triumph, though, were marred by bigotry.
In 1985, Franklin was in New York to receive the Clarence Holte
Literary Award for his biography of historian George Washington
Williams. The next morning, he and his wife were unable to hail a taxi
in front of their hotel. Ten years later, when he was to receive the
freedom medal, Franklin hosted a party for some friends at Washington’s
Cosmos Club, of which he had long been a member. A White woman walked
up to him, handed him a slip of paper and demanded that he get her
coat. Instead of rage, he politely told the woman that any of the
uniformed attendants, “and they were all in uniform,” would be happy
to assist her.
“I refuse to internalize,” he says. “If I did, I wouldn’t be here. … I’d have had a heart attack stroke or something.”
“I want to be out there on the firing line, helping, directing or doing
something to try to make this a better world, a better place to live,”
Except for perhaps another collection of essays, Mirror is likely his
last book, not because he expects to die anytime soon, but because he’s
“written enough.” His planner, which he refers to as “the slave
manual,” is full.
Still, Franklin is troubled by what remains undone.
Franklin says his career has been a lifelong crusade to pull Black
history “into the mainstream.” But he finds that we have not bridged
that “twoness” — that the “problem of the color line,” which Du Bois
saw dominating 20th-century America, has persisted into the 21st.
“I think Americans still think of African-American history as separate,
the way they think of African-Americans as separate,” he says. “It’s
very noxious, very annoying, very sad that we cannot think of ourselves
as one people.”
— Associated Press
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