Franklin’s Tale

Civil Rights Scholar John Hope Franklin Wraps Up Work on Autobiography

Posted June 17, 2003 at 1:21pm

He’s advised the Clinton administration on matters of race in America, written and edited numerous books detailing the black experience in U.S. society, and lectured at some of the country’s great universities. But today John Hope Franklin, the 88-year-old historian and civil rights scholar, is channeling his considerable abilities to take on another challenge: himself.

As a senior scholar at the Library of Congress’ John W. Kluge Center, Franklin is wrapping up work on his autobiography, tentatively titled “The Vintage Years: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin.”

While not exactly a swan song, Franklin purports, “It’s the end of the line, so to speak.

“I have no intention of writing big books anymore,” the Duke University professor emeritus of history asserts, adding with a sly smile: “I might write a letter to the editor or something like that.”

That the then- aspiring historian who first arrived at the Library to do research while a graduate student at Harvard University in the spring of 1939 has returned to complete his last major undertaking is a significance not lost on the now-octogenarian Franklin. “This is where I began my career in a sense, you know. I was working on my doctoral dissertation here, and here I am working on my autobiography 60-odd years later.”

In the intervening years, he has returned on countless occasions to plumb the resources of America’s library — perhaps most notably during work on his cardinal study of the role of blacks in American life, “From Slavery to Freedom: The History of African-Americans,” first published in 1947. “The unusual thing about the Library of Congress for me in [1946] was it was a kind of haven … I came up here [from Durham, N.C.] not merely to do the research but to have some place to sit down quiet and write,” explains Franklin on a recent Monday morning.

“He’s a pioneer scholar … who was focusing on subjects which are now part of the mainstream 30, 40, 50 years ago,” noted Loren Schweninger, a University of North Carolina at Greensboro history professor who wrote his doctoral dissertation under Franklin’s direction as a student at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s. “Now it’s in every textbook, and you can’t study America without looking at race relations.”

Living Race

Franklin, born in the all-black town of Rentiesville, Okla., in 1915, to an attorney father and school teacher mother, attended Booker T. Washington High School before going on to the historically black Fisk University, where his interest in history was first cultivated by a white professor. After earning master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard University, Franklin taught at several predominantly black universities and colleges, as well as at the University of Chicago and Duke University.

From his earliest days, however, the specter of racism loomed large over his personal narrative.

To underscore this fact, he picks up a chapter from his autobiography, leans back in his chair and begins to recount a litany of sordid experiences. There was the time at age 6 when he was removed from a train for accidentally sitting in the whites-only coach; the blind white woman who refused his assistance as a guide through downtown traffic given the color of his skin; the day in an eastern Mississippi town when he was informed he was a possible candidate for a lynching; and the time, more recently, when he was ordered to hang up a white guest’s coat at a Washington club.

When he finishes, Franklin puts the papers down and looks straight ahead, allowing time for it all to sink in.

Behind him hangs an enormous poster of his onetime associate, Thurgood Marshall, with whom he worked as a researcher during the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., case.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision — which outlawed segregation in public schools — was a tremendous victory for champions of racial equality, says Franklin. It is a battle that he believes continues in the University of Michigan affirmative action lawsuits currently pending before the Supreme Court. In 2001, Franklin testified in a Michigan district court in favor of the university’s current admissions policies, which consider race as one of many factors.

“Affirmative action seeks to eliminate certain kinds of privilege that have characterized American education and, indeed, American social relations,” asserts Franklin. “You get places by privilege. You get things by privilege.”

Asked if he foresees the day coming when he would no longer deem the policy necessary, Franklin hedges. It has existed in so many forms for so long, he says, that whether it could ever be eliminated has yet to be determined.

“It hasn’t ever ended,” he opines. “Affirmative action kept my daddy out of graduate school in Oklahoma. It kept me out of graduate school in Oklahoma.”

Helping the President

In 1997, Franklin attracted national attention when then-President Bill Clinton appointed him chairman of the advisory panel of his ambitious Initiative on Race and Reconciliation. It was a task fraught with difficulty, and when it concluded the following year the effort was widely viewed to have fallen short of expectations. Still, the author of “The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-first Century” refuses to concede defeat. “I haven’t said that I was disappointed, and I’m not going to say it now,” he maintains.

Franklin reserves some of his most pointed criticism for The New York Times — a newspaper he believes misrepresented his views during his work on the race initiative. “When I was chairman of the president’s advisory board on race … I was misrepresented by the Times by the reporter at the Times. He made up his stories.

“He said one time, I’ll give you a quote. He said that John Hope Franklin does not want any conservatives to appear before the advisory board because they have nothing to offer. I couldn’t have said that. I have no capacity to say those words except to quote him.”

When it comes to Jayson Blair, the black New York Times reporter who recently resigned after widespread fabrications and inaccuracies were discovered in his work, Franklin takes umbrage with what he views as a case of excessive hand-wringing on the part of the Times.

“This is what I call overkill,” Franklin exclaims, spreading both hands Fosse-style to emphasize his disgust. “It is inconceivable that one insignificant reporter could merit this amount of attention from the greatest newspaper in the world.”

A Scholar and a Gentleman

Sitting in his Kluge Center office, Franklin — a lean man with alabaster hair — projects the air of the self-assured academic. He is nattily attired in a gray suit, pin-striped shirt and black Bruno Magli loafers. A half-page of handwritten manuscript sits on his desk, along with photocopies of articles that appeared in the Tulsa Daily World sometime during his Sooner State adolescence.

He is a man, friends and colleagues say, whose substance is matched by an equally irreproachable sense of style and grace.

An opera buff and gourmand, who takes annual fishing trips to Ennis, Mont., Franklin also possesses a top-flight collection of 300 orchid plants, which he cultivates with near parent-like devotion (both he and his late wife have phalaenopsis orchids registered in their names). Despite his renown, you can still find Franklin’s number listed in the phone book.

“I don’t know anyone who ever had a critical word about the man or his work,” asserts the Andrew Jackson scholar Robert Remini, who is currently writing a history of the U.S. House of Representatives at the Kluge Center.

“He has a fondness for the best, but that’s quality,” adds Walter Brown, a former student and current “fishing buddy.” Franklin, Brown says, has served as an invaluable source of encouragement to him as he struggles with his wife’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Aurelia, Franklin’s wife of 58 years, succumbed to the disease in 1999.

With 135 honorary doctorates, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, an eponymous center at Duke and a library at Fisk which bears the names of him and his wife, there are few plaudits Franklin has yet to earn. But for all his claims of slowing down, Franklin, who will return to Durham, N.C., at the end of the month, continues to steam ahead, recently fulfilling a childhood dream by traveling to Timbuktu, Mali. “I wanted to round out my education by going to Timbuktu,” he laughs. He is also in the process of co-authoring another book with Schweninger, his former student, on a black family and the old South.

Now, with the publication of his autobiography sometime next year — he has a contract with HarperCollins — Franklin looks forward to sharing his personal history with the American public.

“I hope it says I’m all right,” he chuckles. “I hope it gives people [some perspective on] what it means to be a scholar in the United States in the beginning of the 21st century, what it means to be an African-American scholar at the end of the 20th century and what it means to navigate the treacherous waters that are part of the American social scene.”