The Road From Rentiesville

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Well, my father, Buck Colbert Franklin, was a lawyer in Ardmore, Oklahoma. And one of his clients had a legal matter in Shreveport, Louisiana. This was about 1912. So they went over to Shreveport, and the case of my father’s client was called by the clerk of the court, and my father stood. The judge who was presiding said, “You back there, what are you doing standing?” And my father said, “I represent this man in this case.” “Oh, no, you don’t,” the judge said. “No, you don’t. No nigger represents anybody in my court. Now, you either get out or sit down.” My father was devastated by the experience. He left with the feeling that he was being driven out not only of the Shreveport court but out of the white man’s legal system altogether. When he went back to Ardmore, he began to cast around for a place to live where he wouldn’t be bothered with this sort of thing, and he heard about this all-black town. There were a number of them at the time. He would say later that he should have checked it out first, but he was so anxious to get up and get away that he and my mother went straight to Rentiesville. They moved there in 1913, and I was born there in 1915. He was trying to practice law, but without much success, and he became the postmaster in the town. Indeed, I was born in the post office—it was in our home—and I lived there for the first 10 years of my life.

Would you have characterized yourself as middle class?

I suppose so. That might be stretching it, but [laughs] if someone had to be middle or even upper class, I suppose we were. But you can’t attach much significance to that, because we certainly were poor. It was hardly a viable community for a professional. There were just a few hundred people, and most of them were working folk, farmers and the like. So when I was six years old, my dad went to Tulsa to start over again and to practice law. He was becoming very successful there when the riot came that very year.

That was one of the worst race riots in American history.

June 1, 1921. My mother and I were still back in Rentiesville, and for days we didn’t know what had happened, whether he was living or dead. We finally got word that he was living and that he was all right, but everything he had accumulated was either looted or destroyed. He had nothing left but what he had on his back. My mother and sister and I had been scheduled to move there right after school closed. After the riot, it took us four years before we were able to accumulate enough resources to leave.

You’ve talked about your parents’ introducing you to the world of learning. Can you recall any books that were formative influences during those years?

I remember reading a lot of children’s books, like Black Beauty and Boys Stories , and some Ring Lardner. Then I began to read Westerns, with my father. Read a lot of Westerns. By the time I got to Tulsa and started in Booker T. Washington High School, I began to read more seriously in the classics and things like that. That was the first time I read Up From Slavery , by Booker T. Washington. You see, I got curious about him. My father was very enthusiastic about him. I don’t mean in the sense that he backed Washington rather than Du Bois when they fought over certain issues, political and social, but my father admired him very much for what he did at Tuskegee. My father and I together read My Larger Education , which is one of Washington’s books. And I began to read The Story of the Negro shortly after that.

Was that your introduction to Negro history?

Yes, and I read Du Bois at about the same time, The Souls of Black Folk . One of the stimuli for reading that was my first sight of W. E. B. Du Bois, in February of 1926. We’d been in Tulsa only a couple of months, and Du Bois came to town. He was there to speak to the Negro Teachers Association. My mother and my father, both quite enthusiastic about him, took us to hear him. I won’t claim that I understood anything he said; I was much more curious about his appearance. He had on a full dress suit, white tie and tails, and I had never seen anyone in such a getup as that.

How did you first come to learn about slavery?

I think at home. I really don’t remember learning about slavery in school. My father used to tell me about his father, who was born a slave and who lived in the territory. A slave to Indians, by the way.

Richard Wright used the term racial baptism to describe the moment when he first came to understand the meaning of being black in America. Would you say you had such a baptism?