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Published:March 31st, 2009 12:26 EST
John Hope Franklin was Hopeful

John Hope Franklin was Hopeful

By George Curry (Former Featured Editor)

When I first heard last week that historian John Hope Franklin had died, I reached for a copy of And Still We Rise, a collection of 50 interviews with Black role models by Barbara Reynolds. There are two stories Franklin recounted that I have never forgotten - and probably never will.

The historian told the first one when Reynolds asked him to describe his first encounter with racism. "When I was 7 years old, we took a train trip," the Oklahoma-born Franklin recalled. "The train was loaded with people, so we just sat down in the white-only section. The conductor told us to move. My mother refused because we were going only six miles. The conductor stopped the train and put us out in the woods. That was a searing experience a 7-year-old lad would never, never forget."

Nor would he forget what happened to him when he was 30 years old.

"I was traveling from Greensboro, N.C. by train during the closing months of the war," he told Reynolds, then editor of USA Today`s inquiry page. "The blacks aboard were crowded in a half coach while about five whites rode in a full coach. I suggested to the conductor that we exchange with them so we could all sit down. He told us those whites were German prisoners of war and they could not be moved. Those prisoners were watching us, laughing as we stood and stumbled because we didn`t have anywhere to sit."

John Hope Franklin would never forget that experience, either. But two years later, in 1947, he could claim a small victory over America`s version of apartheid. He told the Washington Post that he had traveled to Richmond, Va. to donate blood to his sick brother. When he boarded a bus afterward, he sat in the front of the bus reserved for Whites because he was too tired to walk to the back. The driver ordered him to the back and threatened to have him arrested. "The blacks were yelling at me: `Stand your ground!` And you know what? That bus driver drove off with me sitting right there."

That was the first of many victories for Franklin. Like W.E.B.DuBois, another noted historian, John Hope Franklin graduated from Fisk University in Nashville before earning a master`s and doctorate from Harvard. He taught at three historically Black colleges: St. Augustine`s College, what is now North Carolina Central College and Howard University. He then began a long list of firsts: at Brooklyn College, he was named chairman of the history department, the first time an African-American chaired a department at a predominantly White college; the first Black chair of the history department at the University of Chicago; the first African-American to hold an endowed chair at Duke and the first Black president of the American Historical Association.

His books include From Slavery to Freedom, an American classic first published in 1947 and still in print; Reconstruction After the Civil War; The Emancipation Proclamation, The Free Negro in North Carolina, The Militant South 1800-1861 and The Color Line: Legacy for the 21st Century. His pioneering research was used in the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board Education.
A serious and respected scholar, Franklin never let America forget its ugly past. He wrote in the Atlantic magazine two years ago, "If the American idea was to fight every war from the beginning of colonization to the middle of the 20the century with Jim Crow armed forces, in the belief that this would promoted the American idea of justice and equality, then the American idea was an unmitigated disaster and a denial of the very principles that this country claimed as its rightful heritage."

Franklin said his father experienced inequality in the early 1900s.

He told Barbara Reynolds, "My father, for example, became so frustrated trying to make it in the white world where judges refused to let him represent his clients and ordered him out of the courtroom, that he took his family to an all-black village. They would not let him practice. He simply said, `This is not a world I want to have anything to do with.`" So he moved his family to Rentiesville, Oklahoma, where John Hope Franklin was born.

The younger Franklin has suffered similar insults. On the evening before he was to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, a woman mistook him for an attendant and asked him to get her coat. And a man at his hotel handed him a set of keys and told him to get his car.

When Barack Obama was closing in on becoming the nation`s first Black president, Franklin told Walter Dellinger, a fellow professor at Duke University, that it could be more important "to have that family as the first family than to have Obama as president." History will probably prove him right.
 
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com.