- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006


By John Hope Franklin

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25,

401 pages, illus.


If distinguished historian John Hope Franklin were Japanese, he would long ago have been designated a National Treasure. As it is, he’s a very American national treasure, and his unflinching autobiography, “Mirror to America,” deserves to be read by every American. His look back at the past 90 years of his life is both inspiring and sobering. How far we’ve come since he, his mother, and his sister — on their way to visit his father, who was working in Tulsa — were thrown off a train because they had inadvertently boarded the coach for whites only. Yet how far we have to go in changing individual mindsets: He recalls how, not long ago, a white woman, mistaking him for the cloakroom attendant at the Cosmos Club, asked him to fetch her coat.

John Hope Franklin has made his own way to the top of his profession through determination and hard work, and he has never forgotten any kindness to him — and there were many, as well as slights or insults — along the way.

Despite growing up in what he demonstrates was “abject poverty” in segregated Oklahoma, he had the advantage of devoted and well-educated parents (they had attended the same college in Tennessee). His father was a lawyer but his clients were too poor to pay him; his mother was a teacher, and John Hope learned to read as a toddler while sitting at the back of her first-grade classroom because she had no other place to leave him.

Throughout his youth the boy took any job he could find, from delivering newspapers to washing dishes and working in a funeral home, in order to pay his way to education. At 16 he earned a tuition scholarship to Fisk University and worked as a secretary/clerk-typist on campus to pay for his board.

He was a go-getter from the beginning: In his first week at Fisk he auditioned for and was accepted into the college choir. His (white) history professor, Ted Currier, coached him in debating, which exposed him to travel to the North and East and augmented the self-confidence his parents had instilled. Currier encouraged Mr. Franklin to apply to Harvard for his graduate work, and borrowed the $500 the young man needed to get there (Harvard offered him no money).

One of the most poignant stories Mr. Franklin tells concerns the lynching of a local teenager during Mr. Franklin’s junior year at Fisk. Stricken by the murder, Mr. Franklin and other Fisk students drafted an anti-lynching petition they wished to present to President Roosevelt when he visited the campus en route to Warm Springs.

The anxious college president persuaded student leader Franklin that he should present the petition at Warm Springs instead, and Mr. Franklin duly went to Atlanta to await a call from Warm Springs. The call never came.

John Hope Franklin spent his early teaching career at historically black colleges, including Howard University, before becoming the head of the history department at Brooklyn College in 1956, the first such appointment of a black in the country. His account of looking for suitable housing in New York echoes the experiences he recounts elsewhere in the book about the difficulty black Americans had finding restaurants that would serve them and hotels that would house them.

In 1964 he was lured to the University of Chicago, and chaired the history department there from 1967 to 1970. When, upon retiring from Chicago, he decided to live in Durham, N.C., Duke University promptly made him the James B. Duke Professor of History. He also taught legal history at Duke’s law school for seven years, while writing another book or two.

Since that long-ago time when he missed meeting FDR, John Hope Franklin has advised most living U.S. presidents, many ambassadors and a few kings. He has been everywhere and done everything; knows everybody; has achieved extraordinary recognition as a serious scholar, teacher and author (17 books); and has honored some 137 colleges and universities by accepting their honorary degrees — seizing every occasion offered to speak forthrightly on how far America has yet to go to achieve the equality among its citizens.

In addition, he has headed so many commissions and organizations that he cannot begin to list them all (he doesn’t even mention having served as president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society in the 1970s, or having written a superb “Afterword” to help balance a new history of the society by another historian in 1989).

John Hope Franklin’s beloved wife of well over 50 years, Aurelia, became a victim of Alzheimer’s disease and died while he was writing his memoir, and in a sense the book stands as a paean to her and her encouragement of him throughout their life together. As always, she would be proud of him.

Priscilla S. Taylor, of McLean, Va., was editor of Phi Beta Kappa’s Key Reporter for 18 years.

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