Those of you who hang around this site may have noticed that the ol’ Bloviator is pretty slow to bestow his unreserved admiration on anybody. I’m pretty sure this goes back to the trauma I experienced as a child upon discovering that Roy Rogers was really Leonard Slye from Ohio. At any rate, even if it was strictly SRO in my pantheon of heroes, there’d always be a place for John Hope Franklin, who died this week at the age of 94.
John Hope Franklin was one of those very rare scholars who both wrote history and made history, most prominently in the latter case as a key advisor to the NAACP Legal Defense Team that brought down legalized school desegregation in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. For me, the best testimony to the stature John Hope achieved came several years ago when my neighbor, a white middle school P.E teacher, happened to spot one of his books at my house and tell me excitedly how much he had learned from reading it.
It’s literally impossible to stay abreast of the torrent of tributes that has poured forth in the wake of Franklin’s death. It’s clear, however, that among the several generations of younger scholars who were fortunate enough to make his acquaintance, he will be perhaps most appreciated as an all-too rare academic icon who, for all his achievements as a historian and an eloquent and influential proponent of racial justice, always seemed to have just as much time and regard for them as for his own more senior and accomplished peers. Like hundreds of others before and after me, my initial awkward attempt to introduce myself to “Dr. Franklin” was interrupted mid-stammer by “Why, I know who you are!” and followed by an exhilarating exchange in which he gave me every indication that he really wanted to hear what I had to say about my own research. Needless to say, this was a most welcome departure from the ill-suppressed yawns and fixed stares at the ceiling that typically greet my efforts to explain my work.
By way of contrast, as the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard since W. E B. Dubois, early in his career especially and even later in some cases, John Hope had encountered a seemingly endless series of insults, snubs, and impediments, ranging from barriers to involvement in professional gatherings, to absolute exclusion from certain archives to consignment to separate work spaces in others. On top of these, of course, came the daily reminders of second-class citizenship that simply went with being black in what was still very much a racially segregated America even outside the South, whose history was Franklin’s particular passion.
In 1949, at he behest of his friend C. Vann Woodward, Franklin became the first black scholar ever to present a paper at a meeting of the Southern Historical Association. Despite his Harvard degree and two stellar books, a number of his white colleagues raised questions about where he would stay, eat, or use the bathroom. Sure enough, the meeting hotel in Williamsburg ignored Franklin’s request for a room. Woodward pointed out that the same circumstances might attend if the meeting were scheduled for the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York, or the Mayflower in Washington, or the Parker House in Boston, and Franklin’s decision to stay with a local white friend and avoid any of the dinner meetings helped to assure that this unprecedented event came off smoothly. Franklin’s paper drew a warm response, but he was not actually allowed to attend the banquet that traditionally accompanied the SHA’s presidential address until three years later and then only because, along with a cohort of the meeting’s organizers, Woodward, as president, had insisted that the affair be moved be moved from the Farragut Hotel in Knoxville, which had made it clear it would not serve a racially integrated group.
By 1955 Franklin had a third book and lectureships at Harvard, Cornell, Cambridge, and Salzburg on his resume, but that still counted for nothing in the kingdom of ol’ Jim Crow. Offering a rare glimpse into his personal frustrations, he revealed to his friend Howard Beale what it was like for an accomplished African American to try to participate fully in his chosen profession when he was not allowed to participate fully in American society at large. In January, 1955, he wrote Beale that
Bell Wiley[Emory University] and Jim Silver [Ole Miss] have asked me to be on the program committee of the Southern Historical Association [scheduled to meet in Memphis that November.]I accepted with the reservation that participation in planning the program would not commit me to attend the meeting. Although they have secured commitments from the Peabody Hotel to admit Negroes to all meetings, including regularly scheduled dinner and luncheon meetings, I cannot subject myself to the inconvenience and risk of humiliation involved in attending the meeting. Memphis is a terrible town with the most rigid patterns of segregation. I would be literally stranded at the hotel all the time since white taxicabs will not ride Negro passengers; and it would be difficult for me to get to the meetings from far across town since Negro taxicabs don’t like to go into the “white part of town” since return fares are practically impossible. So, I am in the anomalous position of helping to plan a meeting that will be interesting, valuable, and most attractive, though I am certain that it will not be attractive enough to draw me to Memphis!*
When I first encountered this letter several years ago, I thought first of writer and poet Sterling Brown’s comment that “segregation is the denial of belonging.” Pondering it again after I learned of John Hope’s death, I understood much better his determination, as one who had so often encountered efforts to deny his own “belonging,” to make his junior colleagues feel comfortable and secure in his presence.
The most memorable session of the 1955 meeting that Franklin had helped to plan but could not bring himself to attend featured remarks by none other than William Faulkner. Many years later, he revealed that his “greatest regret” was that, because of his principled refusal to bend to the etiquette of Jim Crow, he had lost his “one opportunity” to hear Faulkner. Personally, since their mutual friend Jim Silver would almost certainly have introduced the two, I’m more inclined to think that the real loser in this case might have been Faulkner.
*The letter quoted here is from the Howard K. Beale Collection at the Wisconsin State Historical Society.
P.S.Completely without his permission, and, in fact, with no real regard for his feelings in the matter whatsoever, I am appending the following comment on this post by my old(er)friend and a distinguished historian in his own right, Hardy Jackson:
I first met Dr. Frankin in Hollywood Florida at the SHA convention. I had decided to go sit by the pool so I went and got on my swim suit. I wore a shirt with my SHA badge pinned on for fear that my Alabama roots might show and without proper identification I would get thrown out. I was riding down the elevator when it stopped on one of the floors. The door opened and in walked John Hope Franklin and Willie Lee Rose. He looked at me, smiled broadly, and said, "I wish I had brought my swimming trunks." :You know, I really think he did.