- Historic Sites
The Road From Rentiesville
The greatest historian of the black experience in America speaks of what has changed during his long life, and what has not. An Interview With John Hope Franklin.
February/March 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 1
Yes. It was in Rentiesville. Rentiesville was a flag stop on the railroad. They’d just throw the mail off and rush by. If you wanted the train to stop and pick you up, you had to flag it down. Well, I must’ve been about six. My mother and sister and I went down to the station and flagged the train to go to Checotah, a town six miles south of us where we would go do some shopping. When the train finally came to a stop we found ourselves in front of a white coach. The train would stay at a flag stop just long enough for you to board. So we got right on and sat down. The conductor came through and said, “You can’t sit here. This is a white coach.” My mother said, “I can’t move my children while the train is moving.” He stopped the train. By that time we were, I suppose, halfway to Checotah. She thought that meant we were to move to the black coach. But he meant we had to get off, and he put us out there in the woods. We had transgressed, so to speak, and we had to walk back to Rentiesville through the woods. That was my baptism in race.
Did your parents teach you what is sometimes called the etiquette of race relations—that is, how to address whites and anticipate their moves and what kind of demeanor and physical posture to maintain in their presence?
No, no, no. My mother and father were irrevocably independent and absolutely disdainful of the whole apparatus of segregation. I was not taught to be deferential to whites. Quite the contrary. I was taught to be independent. Independent in a way that I probably don’t care to be today. For example, once I was downtown in one of the stores and I was waiting for the person at the counter to serve me. I was next, but she turned instead to this white woman. I simply stopped her. I said, “You know I am next. I’m supposed to be served before she’s served.” Well, I don’t have that kind of impatience today. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m not trying to make a point, but I was making a point then.
My mother and father refused always to be voluntarily segregated. That is, they never went to anything where they would be segregated if they didn’t have to. They had to ride the train. That was their transportation. But they thought it was sort of curious of me to want to go to the Chicago Civic Opera Company when it came to Tulsa, because the audience was segregated. They said, “If you want to go, if you want to demean yourself like that, you go ahead.” And I did go. I went every year. Loved it. But I was sort of ashamed of myself.
What were your early impressions of whites? Were they something to be feared?
No, I wasn’t afraid of them. I think the riot had cleared the air, and whites tended to be easier to get along with. There was no hostility. There was still this firm segregation, but without any ingredient of meanness. We knew that our school and playground facilities were quite inferior, but when we needed something better, we’d just say so. For example, our tennis courts were not all-weather courts, and a rain would wash them out. If we wanted to play tennis, we’d just call the parks department and tell them we were going to play tennis over in a white park. And they’d say that’s all right, no problem.
In 1931 you went off to Fisk University in Nashville. Did Nashville seem very different from Tulsa?
Oh, yes [laughs] . In the worst way. I mean, I really did find out what the South was like when I got to Tennessee, and it was a searing experience. Don’t forget I was 16 years old. I went downtown to do some shopping, and when I went to the station to take the trolley back to Fisk, I said to the man who was in the change booth, “I’m sorry I only have a 20-dollar bill, and so you can give me all ones if you want to.” He said, “A nigger’s gonna tell me how to make change? What the hell do you mean?” And I fell back. I had never been called a nigger before. I can almost count the times I went to downtown Nashville after that.
There was a lynching at Fisk when you were there.
That was in the spring of my junior year, in 1934. A fellow named Cordie Cheek. I didn’t know him. He lived in a Fisk house but he was not a Fisk student. Fisk owned rental property. He was taken out and lynched. He had touched a girl in passing. Her brother gave her a dollar to say she had been assaulted, and Cheek was lynched for it.
And you were fully aware of it?
Oh, I was very aware of it. We had protests, we had mass meetings, we passed resolutions. And when I became the president of the student body in the fall, the thing flared up again. The moment the students got back on campus they came up with the idea of presenting to the President of the United States a petition expressing our horror and our dismay. This was possible because Franklin Roosevelt had announced in the fall of 1934 that he was passing through Nashville on his way to Warm Springs, Georgia, and that he wanted to do two things in Nashville: see the Hermitage, the home of Andrew Jackson, and visit Fisk University, much to the outrage of Nashville and particularly of Vanderbilt University.