Tuesday, March 31, 2009


This past November 4th, I sat in my living room and watched an incredible moment unfold on television. The first African American to be elected President was giving an electrifying speech from Chicago’s Grant Park. I thought of just how far our nation had come in my lifetime. And I thought of John Hope Franklin.

I was raised as a white boy in the Deep South, but my parents did their best to keep me from growing up with the prejudices that had infected that part of the country ⎯ and the rest of the country as well ⎯ for too long. It was through my parents that I met John Hope Franklin.

Dr. Franklin, grew up in Oklahoma, and was raised to overcome the prejudices that would otherwise stand in the way of success. He attended Fisk University and Harvard, earning his Ph.D. in history in 1941. He went on become one of the eminent historians of his time, and even served as a consultant to the legal team arguing for the plaintiffs in the landmark desegregation case, Brown vs. Board of Education. He strove to tell the complete story of America, especially the lasting legacy from the early nation’s reliance on slavery. For his efforts, he was awarded a richly deserved Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995.

I didn’t really know that man: the famous John Hope Franklin. The John Hope Franklin I knew was a warm and courteous man who was devoted to three things: his family, educating, and growing beautiful orchids. He and my father, himself an eminent historian, may not have been necessarily close, but they shard a friendship having its roots in a deep mutual respect for each other as historians and writers. In the few times I got to speak to Dr. Franklin, I came to share my father’s respect for a remarkable man.

One experience with John Hope Franklin stands out particularly in my memory. Dr. Franklin and his wife, Aurelia, came to New Orleans for a professional meeting. My mother offered to show them some of the sites, and she mentioned that she often took out-of-towners to see some of the nearby plantations. Mom immediately winced, realizing she had just volunteered to take the nation’s preeminent authority on the evils of slavery to a sugar-coated version of the scene of the crime. Dr. Franklin graciously declared that he would find such a trip to be interesting. I’m not sure if my mother thought including her youngest son, then in high school, would offer some level of emotional support for her, or if she merely thought I would get a little enlightenment courtesy of John Hope Franklin. In either event, I went along.

I don’t recall which plantation we were at, or exactly what was being said. I do recall that the tour guide was well into the Gone With the Wind version of history when I saw a slight smile come to Dr. Franklin’s face. He raised his hand, and proceeded to deliver a five-minute lecture that destroyed all of the myths that had just been thrown at us. Although it was indeed a lecture, it was delivered without a trace of anger, bitterness, condescension, or accusation. This was simply another opportunity for John Hope Franklin to do what he loved best: educating. He did it with a soft voice that demanded attention.

I looked at the others in the room. The tour guide looked impatient and upset that someone had gotten her off of her script. The other people taking the tour, however, looked thoughtful. None of them knew just who this gentleman was, who looked distinguished even in walking shorts and a sport shirt. It was clear, though, that he was someone who merited attention.

That was the key to John Hope Franklin’s genius as an educator. He was able to reveal the truth about the most inhumane acts, while never denying the humanity of those who benefited from the evil institution. And that drove the point that much farther toward home.

Dr. Franklin has been quoted as saying, “My challenge was to weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly.” For him, it was a simple matter of setting the record straight.

John Hope Franklin passed away last week the age of 94. I thank God he lived long enough to see the last election, an outward and visible sign of the progress he worked so hard for. I also thank God that I knew the man, even if it was only a slight acquaintance.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


On Sunday night I was listening to the Tavis Smiley show on NPR and heard a re-airing of an interview Smiley conducted with Mr. Franklin back in '06. Sadly, I have to admit that until hearing that interview, I had never heard of John Hope Franklin. But listening to the interview, I found myself unable to get out of the car (I was sitting in the parking lot at the grocery store). What an interesting man he must have been. And from the interview, it was obvious to me that in addition to being the "famous" John Hope Franklin, he was still a "warm and courteous" man.

I'm glad I heard that interview before reading your story about knowing Mr. Franklin. Having heard his stories in the interview, hearing his voice and his obvious good nature, I was able to really visualize the story you told and could imagine him setting the story straight on the plantation visit.

Thanks for sharing.

4/2/09, 8:11 AM  

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