- 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
It was kind of wild, because I didn’t have enough money to last more than that academic year, and this was February, but I said to myself, Oh, everything will come out all right, and so I went down to Raleigh. At the state archives, the archivist just told me point-blank, “Well, you know, we never thought of a Negro doing research here, so we don’t have any research facilities for Negroes, but I guess you have the right to work here, and all I ask you to do is to give me a chance to provide some facilities for you.” He suggested I come back the next week.
I just looked at him, because I’m paying rent, you know [laughs] , and it’s the higher cost of segregation. I’m paying rent while they find a place for me. This was Monday morning. I told him I would return on Thursday. By that time he had prepared a room for me, one of the exhibit rooms, I think—it was very small—and he put in a table and a chair and a wastebasket. He gave me a key to the manuscript stacks, assuming that no white page would want to serve me, so I would have to get my own things. No one was monitoring what I took, so I would just load up my library cart and go through the research room where all the whites were and then across the hall to my little room and settle down to work.
“I don’t believe in fighting. Never had a personal fight. Never had a fight in my life.”
I did that for two weeks, until the archivist called me and said he would have to take away my key. He explained that the white researchers felt they were being discriminated against because they couldn’t go into the stacks. So from that time on, I had to do what the others did.
Did you have the same problem at other archives?
There’s such inconsistency in the South, you know. Some years later, in 1945, I was conducting research for
But I went that first morning and told the woman in the research room what I was working on and what I would like to see, and she went back in the stacks and brought out two boxes of material and manuscripts. Then she just stood there and looked at me. I didn’t know what the hell to do. There were some big tables there in this research room, but I didn’t know where I should sit.
So I went over to a quiet corner, where I wouldn’t be disturbed, and she said, “You can’t sit there. It’s too hot, you’ll get no air there. The fans are over here, where these people are. You come over here and sit at these tables. They need to meet you anyhow.” And she stopped everybody at the table and introduced them to me. I sat there and I worked right there for several weeks.
The dissertation on free blacks was published in 1943 by the University of North Carolina Press. After that, you went to teach at Fisk, St. Augustine’s, North Carolina for Negroes, and Howard, then on to Brooklyn College, the University of Chicago, and Duke. The first four were black colleges; what were some of the major differences between teaching at them and at the predominantly white schools?
Well, the teaching load, the facilities, and of course salaries, but I’d like to make one point about my extraordinarily able black colleagues. I’m not sure that’s fully understood. Opportunities were so limited, and they were all bunched up at these places. You’d have to look long and hard to get a group of more distinguished teachers than Howard University had back in those days.
What happened when World War II came along? How did you feel about the war?
I was not enthusiastic about it. It was very difficult for me to want to fight Nazism when we had all these problems here at home. In addition to not being enthusiastic about the cause itself, I’m an intellectual pacifist. That is, I’m close to being a real pacifist. I don’t believe in war. I don’t believe in fighting. Never had a personal fight. Never had a fight in my life. But when the war came, with all the devastation of Pearl Harbor and the Navy in such bad shape, I said, “That’s where I should go.” The Navy was begging people to come in, with full-page ads and so forth. I was living in Raleigh. I went down to the recruiting office and told them that I could run an office. I had rigged business machines, taken shorthand and won gold medals in typing, and had a Harvard Ph.D. They told me, “Yeah, you got everything but the right color.” So I said, “Well I thought this was an emergency, and I’m sorry to have taken up your time.” And I left.
Do you, in retrospect, see World War II as a turning point in the history of race relations in the United States? In the sense that the civil rights movement actually had its roots in the war?
Well, it had its roots maybe, but it certainly didn’t emerge as quickly as a plant. I remember all the rioting and brutality against black soldiers during those years. I just don’t know of any evidence that it was a turning point. They finally let blacks in the Marines, and they made some improvements in the Navy—let them in above the rank of messmen, for instance. And there were more black commissioned officers in the Army. But I can’t see that as changing the face of American race.