John Hope Franklin, Scholar and Symbol, Has Lived the History He Helps to Illuminate

updated 10/29/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

John Hope Franklin was teaching at Cambridge University in England in 1962 when his phone rang at 4:30 one morning. "My family has been wiped out," he thought desperately, shaken into wakefulness. The news from home was far less dolorous. Franklin had just become the first black ever elected to membership in the exclusive Cosmos Club of Washington, D.C.

Ordinarily, an invitation to a leading U.S. historian like Franklin to join a fraternity of his peers in the arts, sciences and politics might have attracted only passing attention. At the time, however, it was headline news. Earlier that year, the Cosmos Club had touched off a major racial furor by refusing to admit another prominent black, journalist Carl Rowan, then serving in the Kennedy Administration as deputy assistant Secretary of State. The President promptly withdrew his own membership application, but friends of Professor Franklin felt the club's policies should be challenged more boldly and obtained Franklin's permission to nominate him. "We're going to dare them to turn you down," they explained.

Though the confrontation was couched in personal terms, Franklin the historian didn't see it that way. He believed then, as he does now, that his role as racial pioneer was a reflection on American society and not on himself. Incredulously, he recalls that when he was named chairman of the Brooklyn College history department in 1956, even the New York Times found the item sufficiently newsworthy to warrant a front-page story with photograph. "I'm accustomed to being a first," Franklin says with a shrug. "I'm not moved by that. All of those things should have happened long before they did."

At 64 Franklin enjoys the ranking of untitled dean among the chroniclers of America's struggle for racial equality. As such, he has exerted a profound influence on the way Americans look at their past—and at themselves. His nine books have sold close to two million copies, and several of them (such as From Slavery to Freedom, The Militant South and Reconstruction After the Civil War) have earned recognition as standard works in the field. Franklin's colleagues marvel at his gift for combining graceful prose with passionate commitment while maintaining the balance needed for scholarship. Since 1969, he has been the John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Chicago and is now president of the American Historical Association.

Today, from the perspective afforded by both his intellectual training and his experience of life in America, Franklin finds that discrimination remains far too pervasive. "There is still hostility to blacks moving into satisfactory housing in almost every part of the country," he observes. "When blacks came to the city the whites ran like hell, and they haven't stopped running yet."

Even more disturbing to Franklin is the horrendous unemployment rate among black youths—as high as 50 percent in many places, he says. "Within a very few years we're going to have an entire generation of people who have never worked," he warns. "These young people are the very substance of the future that is going down the drain, and it certainly is going to change the fabric and meaning of our society. Even if opportunities increase significantly, I'm not sure it will mean anything. These people live in another world now, speak another language."

Himself the grandson of a runaway slave, Franklin is no stranger to the consequences of bigotry. But he also knows that, however gradually, however subtly, attitudes can be changed. It was only 40 years ago, as a graduate student at Harvard, that the young academic went to the North Carolina state archives in Raleigh to research his doctoral thesis (The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860). The archivist told him there was no segregated space available and instructed Franklin to come back in a week. When he did, he discovered that a room had been cleared for his solitary use, equipped with a table and chair. Fearing that white clerks might find it demeaning to fetch books for a black scholar, the archivist presented Franklin with a key to the stacks and invited him to procure his own research.

Characteristically, Franklin turned adversity into advantage. As white scholars waited impatiently for the harried staff to attend to their needs, the bemused black man strolled past with his books. "The white scholars couldn't stand it," he recalls with a grin. "They wanted the same privileges. But the archivist couldn't have all those people trampling through the stacks. So the pages had to serve me as well—in my room."

Franklin returned to North Carolina in 1967, leading a delegation of Chicago graduate students. Once again he found a special office set aside for him, but this time it was intended as a tribute. "I was something of a hero," he remembers with an appreciative chuckle. "They didn't want me to be inconvenienced."

Franklin's cool, stubborn resolve may be a trait he acquired by inheritance. In 1832 his enslaved great-grandfather was taken from Alabama to Oklahoma by his masters, the Chickasaw Indians. There his son, David Burney, escaped to join the Union Army, married a woman who was half Indian, changed his name to Franklin and eventually settled on a ranch deeded to him by the federal government. In time David's son Buck went to college in Tennessee and later became a lawyer. Buck married a schoolteacher and moved to Rentiesville, Okla., where he doubled as the town's attorney and postmaster. His son, John Hope, was born in a room behind the post office.

Chafed by the limitations of backwater lawyering, Buck Franklin took his practice to Tulsa in 1919. Two years later, before his family could join him, a bloody race riot leveled almost every black-owned dwelling in the city. Undaunted, Franklin went to work in a tent. When Tulsa city councilmen, in a thinly disguised attempt to exclude impoverished blacks permanently, devised an ordinance requiring all new structures to be built of expensive brick and stone, he fought the law all the way to the state supreme court—and won. Four years later, in 1925, the Franklins were finally reunited in Tulsa.

Planning to follow his father into the law, John Hope eventually enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville. There, however, his scholarly imagination was ignited by a white history professor named Theodore Currier. "I seemed helpless to make any other choice but study history," he recalls. "It was a seductive experience, breathtakingly exciting." Young Franklin took 50 hours of government and history courses under Currier and graduated from Fisk magna cum laude in 1935.

Though as an undergraduate John Hope had worked his way through school by typing and taking shorthand dictation, he lacked the money to continue his studies. Professor Currier rose to the occasion, borrowing $500 to send Franklin to Harvard. "It was a good investment," Currier mused last spring, shortly before his death. "John Hope is very judicious, very human, always so generous. If he has a flaw, it's that he's so damned well-organized, always planning every minute of his life. But he's a good father, a hell of a nice husband and a fantastic scholar."

Over the years Franklin's varied academic career has taken him to dozens of campuses in the U.S. and abroad and has brought him some 60 honorary degrees. His virtues, however, were once not so apparent to the military bureaucracy. Franklin tried in vain to volunteer for the Navy during World War II. "They had full-page ads begging for people with skills like shorthand and typing, but they refused me," he recalls wryly. "I had thought the nation was in danger, but apparently it wasn't." Later, when his draft board ordered him to get a blood test, he was denied entry into a doctor's office and told to wait outside by the fire escape. Angrily vowing not to be taken into the Army "as vermin," he returned to the draft board and won deferral on grounds that he was needed at home to teach. "The Army didn't deserve me," says Franklin today. "Anyway, I've never had a fight in my life. I could no more shoot a man than fly to the moon."

Indeed, the silver-haired Franklin appears to be the most disciplined and mild-mannered of men, and his patience is a matter of record. With a historian's precision, he recalls that his first date with Fisk schoolmate Aurelia Elizabeth Whittington took place on Oct. 31, 1931. "We waited almost nine years to get married on June 11, 1940," he remembers. "She had her library science degree and I was writing my dissertation." (Another 12 years passed before the Franklins' only child, John Whittington, was born. He is currently director of an English language school in Dakar, Senegal.)

A prisoner of his study, which he laughingly calls "the slave quarters," Franklin finds diversion in growing orchids, an avocation he began while teaching at the University of Hawaii in 1959. Each day he retreats to the rooftop greenhouse that crowns his three-story graystone on Chicago's South Side. Testifying to his skill is the John Hope Franklin orchid, a lovely white-and-red hybrid that has been recognized by Britain's Royal Horticultural Society. With habitual thoroughness, Franklin keeps detailed records on his plants, leaving nothing to instinct. "A green thumb will kill an orchid," he explains. "You have to have knowledge."

Upon his retirement next year, Franklin will hardly be left at loose ends. He believes black scholars must not only accumulate academic credentials but have an impact on U.S. society as well. Following his own precept, Franklin supplied the historical brief for the NAACP lawsuit that led to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling outlawing school segregation. In 1965 he was one of a contingent of academics who joined the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march in support of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Now he has lent his prestige to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's PUSH-EXCEL program, encouraging students and teachers in ghetto schools. "We can't do what we want to do if we have to leave at 2:59 in the afternoon," he says. "We've got to stop watching the clock and start watching the kids." More than a dozen John Hope Franklin history clubs have sprung up in Chicago high schools, and last spring a professorship in history was established at Fisk in his name. (Franklin is opposed to black studies not incorporated into the regular curriculum. "Some schools have black mathematics," he notes. "That's like Confederate mathematics.")

Understandably, Franklin views education as the vehicle by which black hopes may be realized. "There are over a million blacks in colleges and universities today, eight times what there were 20 years ago," he observes. "These kids will move into areas where blacks have never been before. If I had come out of the university 25 years ago, I couldn't have thought of being a major banker. I couldn't have expected to be a middle-management executive." Grudgingly, Franklin seems ready to concede that the future of race relations in America need not be as grim as its past. "We are in for some hard times on the social front," he says. "But I think we do have a chance, if only a chance, to become a civilized nation."

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