John Hope Franklin: Installments

Part 1: Early Life and College

In Part 1, John Hope Franklin speaks about his parents, his early childhood and school memories, and his college education. Franklin was born in Rentiesville, OK to Buck Franklin and Mollie Lee Franklin. Franklin’s father was a lawyer, and although he was passionate about integration, Rentiesville was an all-black town. When a judge orders him out of his courtroom, Buck decides to move the family to Tulsa, OK.

John remembers the riots in Tulsa in 1921, when hundreds are killed when whites burn the black section of Tulsa to the ground. Black businessmen were very successful in Tulsa, to the envy of whites, an envy that fuels the riots. John’s father lost everything in the riots, and John remembers that it was the first time they had to start over completely.

Franklin’s second major memory of strident racism came in 1922, when he and his mother and siblings accidentally boarded the white section of the train. When the conductor told his mother that she would have to move while the train was moving, she refused, so the conductor stopped the train. When she got off, the train left them at the station, and they had to walk all the way home.

Franklin graduated valedictorian of his class at the age of 16. He recalls not having access to black history classes at his high school. When he was in high school, he went to an opera, where viewers were segregated, and says that he regretted participating in it afterwards. He enrolled in Fisk University, an all-black university, and met his future wife, Aurelia Whittington. While at Fisk, one of Franklin’s teachers borrowed money to make sure Franklin went to Harvard to finish his education, which he did in 1936, with a masters degree.

As Franklin was researching for his dissertation on free African Americans in North Carolina, he needed access to the North Carolina State archives. Because the managers over the archives never imagined a black person wanting to be in the archives, there were no segregated facilities. In addition, they gave Franklin a key to the stacks because they assumed that none of the pages would be willing to serve him. However, the plan backfired, because all of the researchers then wanted their own key, since Franklin was getting all the materials he wanted and they were getting only a page at a time.

Franklin also talks about his experience with the military. He talks about his attempt to enlist, and a commanding officer telling him he was the wrong color. While his brother served, and paid for it dearly the rest of his life, Franklin refused to serve, even when he was served draft papers. He began teaching at St. Augustine’s College, but when the dean refused to write a letter excusing him from the draft, he accepted a position at NC Central College. When criticized about “dodging the draft,” he replies that he was simply making it easier for the military to maintain the proper color.

Part 2: Teaching and Writing

John Hope Franklin speaks about his authoring From Slavery to Freedom and his teaching experiences in this episode. Franklin begins by explaining that publishers at Knopf approached him with a request to write a book about African American history. Although Franklin was a little skeptical at first, he took the challenge because he wanted to learn about the history himself, and since there were no courses in African American history, researching helped him piece together what he wanted to know.

After the book, From Slavery to Freedom, was finished, it was published in 1947. Around that time, Franklin was experiencing his own difficulties, as his younger brother died at 38 as a result of the emotional abuse he received while he was in the Army. At the same time, Franklin was offered a post at Howard University, which he accepted.

Besides the birth of his only child, John Whittington Franklin, the other major event for Franklin in the early 1950s was his work with Thurgood Marshall on the Brown v. Board of Education. Franklin remembers the thrill of Brown’s victory and then later when Marshall is nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Franklin knew these were important moments for African Americans.

Another victory came in 1956 when Franklin was asked to be the chairman of the history department at Brooklyn College. Franklin was quite surprised when a New York Times reporter asked to interview him, and then his picture appeared on the front page of the Times the next day. As he says, “The front page of the New York Times is for real news. This was just a job. I didn’t see what the big deal was.”

However, even the story did not make it easy for his to find living space in New York City, as realtors would refuse to show him houses, and his attorney finally told him to buy a house for sale by owner. When he finally did, and he called his insurance company to request the money to purchase the house, the insurance agent refused to give him the money because he said he was trying to buy a house where he wasn’t supposed to buy one. Switching insurance companies, Franklin was finally able to buy the house and still has friends from the people he met in the neighborhood after they moved in.

Although Franklin was not involved in the March on Washington, he did attend a march through Atlanta and recalls being frightened by seeing curtains close as they walked by houses. As he says, “We never knew what was behind those curtains, so I was scared to death.”

Part 3: Back to North Carolina

While Dr. Franklin was teaching at Brooklyn College, he received an offer to join the University of Chicago as the chair of the history department. Franklin said that people in Chicago welcomed him and his family, and he did not experience the difficulties that he had faced when he moved to New York. He enjoyed teaching at the university, and he had about 32 students that he felt were his students, since he advised them directly on their dissertations.

In 1982 he accepted a teaching position as the James B. Duke professor of history at Duke University and moved back to North Carolina. While he was at Duke, he actively opposed two Supreme Court nominations: Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. Franklin felt that Bork’s past judgments indicated that he would hand down unfavorable decisions for many African Americans, and he felt that Thomas’s character and historical decisions, despite the fact that he was African American, also would pose a threat to the progress African Americans had made.

Although Franklin states that many advances have been made for African Americans, and life now is very different from life before 1960, he says that insensitive people still make comments that can affect African American children for life. He gives the example of a young boy in school who worked for days on a paper, only to have the teacher ask where he had plagiarized it. He states that he would not want to raise a child today—any child—because of incidents like this.

Franklin was awarded the Medal of Freedom, and remembers President Clinton handing him the medal. Franklin was fond of President Clinton, and accepted a position on the advisory board to the President’s Initiative on Race. He recalls several controversial events and several criticisms of the board, including one that stated he had prevented any Native Americans from being on the board, but he responds that board members had no decision power over who was on the board, and that he would definitely not have made such a suggestion.

One of his other priorities as he approached 80 was to publish a book his father had written long ago. His father had asked him to help him publish it, but with his own busy life, he was unable to find the time. After he died, he found the manuscript, and when he was the same age as his father was when he died (81), he asked his son, who was teaching English as a Second Language, to help him prepare the manuscript for publication. The published book was a testimony to three generations of Franklins, as father, son and grandson had a hand in its publication.

Franklin also talks about his wife’s battle with Alzheimer’s and her eventual death, his own love of orchids and fishing, and his desire for the future.