Archive for Sunday, October 30, 2005

Historian’s memoir details life ‘defined by scholarship’

October 30, 2005


— These days, John Hope Franklin spends more time in the greenhouse behind his home than in library stacks.

"It's my favorite haunt," the historian says as he steps inside the hothouse, gray gravel crunching underfoot. "I come out here three or four times a day - not necessarily to work, but just to look and see and enjoy."

The humid air is alive with lacy ferns, spiny bromeliads and cascading streptacarpella. But they are only window dressing to his true passion - his collection of more than 300 orchids. Hanging from a piece of cork is an Aerangis, an orchid from Madagascar whose pale beige blossom is the size of a small spider. Nearby, a vanilla plant snakes 7 feet up a wooden support.

And then there are his pride and joy: Phaelanopsis Aurelia Franklin, a diminutive yellow orchid, "long-suffering and tolerant," named for his late wife; and Laeliocattleya John Hope Franklin, a long-stemmed, lavender-blossomed hybrid that he says is like himself, "big and ungainly."

Franklin fell in love with orchids because "they're full of challenges, mystery" - the same reasons he fell in love with history.

"To grow orchids, you have to be persistent, patient," he says, picking a dead, yellow bloom from a plant. "And to do the right kind of history, the kind of history I think is worth doing, of course, you have to be persistent AND patient and work hard."

'Legitimate field'

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, Brooklyn 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, 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.

"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 investigation," 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.


Franklin lives in a five-bedroom, five-bath brick Colonial Williamsburg-style house not far from Duke University, where he is a professor emeritus, and a learning center bears his name. His home is decorated with African sculptures and American artists such as Jacob Lawrence.

And it is crammed with books - on tables, on shelves, rising stalagmitelike in stacks from the floor.

Sitting in his favorite wing-backed chair, Franklin speaks in a clear voice, effortlessly plucking dates and names from the air. There is an agelessness to this aged man. His face and hands are smooth and unlined, his posture erect. If it weren't for the close-cropped head of snow-white hair, he might be mistaken for a man in his 50s.

He was born Jan. 2, 1915, in the all-black town of Rentiesville, Okla., where his parents moved in the mistaken belief that separation from whites would mean a better life for their young family.

His father, Buck, was a lawyer. His mother, Mollie, a teacher, began taking him to school with her when he was 3. He could read and write by 5; by 6, he first became aware of the "racial divide separating me from white America."

Franklin, his mother and sister Anne were ejected from a train when his mother refused to move to the overcrowded "Negro" coach. As they trudged back home, young John Hope began to cry. His mother pulled him aside and told him, "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."

Franklin attended historically black Fisk University, where he met his wife, Aurelia Whittington. He planned to follow his father into law, but a professor's lively lectures convinced him that history was his field.

Franklin decided to do his doctoral thesis at Harvard University on free blacks in antebellum North Carolina. 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, including the first black professor to hold an endowed chair at Duke University and the first black president of the American Historical Assn., the Southern Historical Assn., the Organization of American Historians and the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

Marred by bigotry

Some of his greatest moments of triumph, though, were marred by bigotry.

His joy at being offered the chair of the Brooklyn College history department in 1956 was tempered by his difficulty getting a loan to buy a house in a "white" neighborhood. In 1985, he was in New York to receive a literary award for his biography of historian George Washington Williams, a 40-year project for which he was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. But taxis would not pick him up.

Ten years later, when he was to receive the freedom medal, a white woman walked up to him at Washington's Cosmos Club, of which he had long been a member, handed him a slip of paper and demanded that he get her coat. Instead of rage, he politely told the woman that a uniformed attendant 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."

When Pulitzer-winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. worked in the Kennedy White House, he recommended Franklin for an ambassadorship. He says that Franklin's great contribution was "showing a black American can beat white Americans at their own game. He's a statesman."


When asked to name his favorite book, Franklin replies, without hesitation, "The Souls of Black Folk." In it, Du Bois describes the "twoness" of black Americans - "two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings."

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."


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