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John Hope Franklin Holds a Mirror to America

John Hope Franklin Holds a Mirror to America
By Ronald Roach

Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin
By John Hope Franklin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November 2005
416 pp., $25.00, hardcover; ISBN: 0374299447

It’s the rare historian whose life looms as large as the events he or she chronicles. Dr. John Hope Franklin is one of those rare beings. His life and times, as described in the newly published Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin, report as much about the struggle for Black equality as any academic text covering American history in the 20th century. 

Born January 2, 1915, Franklin, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus at Duke University, remains an active public speaker and writer. He is the author of numerous books, including Emancipation Proclamation; The Militant South; The Free Negro in North Carolina; Reconstruction After the Civil War; A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Ante-bellum North; and From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. While his celebrated history books largely examine slavery and early Southern history in America, Franklin emerged as a frontline observer and occasional participant in some of the most significant developments in the 20th century struggle for African-American equality. Included in Mirror to America are noteworthy recollections of the Black intellectuals and scholars who emerged in the aftermath of Reconstruction and the earliest days of Jim Crow segregation.

As a successor to the earliest generation of Black scholars to emerge after the Civil War, Franklin proved himself the Jackie Robinson of his generation by becoming the first African-American to secure a full-time, tenured faculty position at a virtually all-White major university. In 1956, Franklin accepted an offer to become chair of the history department at Brooklyn College, known at that time as the “poor man’s Harvard” for its highly-regarded faculty. Coincidentally, the historic appointment, which Black scholars regarded as a belated one for American higher education, came nearly a decade after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.

Like his African-American forebears and peers, Franklin readily embraced activist roles outside the classroom. The scholar-activist model had become an established tradition among Black intellectuals harking back to Du Bois and his 19th century contemporaries. Franklin writes that working with Thurgood Marshall and the legal team behind the Brown v. Board school desegregation case provided a highlight of the historian’s career. In the fall of 1953, Franklin commuted from Washington, D.C., where he held a faculty position at Howard University, to an NAACP office in New York City each weekend to help coordinate historical research on the U.S Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

Franklin also trekked along with other historians in the famous Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965, part of the civil rights movement’s demand for passage of a national voting rights bill. More recently, he served as the high-profile chair of the President’s Advisory Board on Race under President Bill Clinton.   

Franklin weaves all that and more throughout his well-written and detailed autobiography. In the first chapters of Mirror to America, Franklin emphasizes the depth of social and educational nurturing he enjoyed as a youngster in his native Oklahoma. His father worked as a lawyer and his mother as a schoolteacher, and the Franklin family often struggled to make ends meet. But his parents managed to inspire young John Hope, his older brother and two older sisters toward high achievement. Franklin pays tribute to his parents in Mirror with lovingly drawn portraits of them.

The pioneering historian also recalls how the notorious 1921 race riot in Tulsa kept him, his mother and siblings separated from Franklin’s father when, just prior to the riot, the father took up residence in Tulsa to pursue legal work. The devastation of Tulsa’s Black community at the hands of rampaging White mobs delayed the family’s reunion for a number of years, as Franklin’s father worked in Tulsa to establish a viable law practice. Franklin’s mother worked and raised her children in Rentiesville, Okla., until it became possible to reunite with her husband.

One of the more touching stories in Mirror comes when Franklin’s father arranges for his son to deliver an Emancipation Day speech at a local Methodist church in his absence. “The address went off with no difficulty on my part,” Franklin writes. “Apparently I read the speech quite satisfactorily for when I concluded, the large audience was on its feet applauding, even cheering. But my true sense of pride and accomplishment came later when my father returned and told me that many people had expressed their pleasure at hearing my recitation,” according to Franklin.

Franklin’s recollection of his high school years in Tulsa and college years at Fisk University prove quite compelling in Mirror, given that these experiences left him highly prepared and extremely motivated to attain
the master’s and doctorate degrees he had earned from Harvard University by 1941. Marriage to his college sweetheart, the former Aurelia Whittington, also enabled a grateful Franklin to take on difficult writing projects, including From Slavery to Freedom, the classic history text first published in 1947. The widely used text is now in its seventh edition.

With Mirror to America, Franklin renders a wealth of information with depth and detail in a text that will also surely take its place among the most important publications regarding 20th century U.S. history.

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