February/March 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 1
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.
In his writing, as in his teaching, John Hope Franklin, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History and Professor of Legal History at Duke University Law School, has defied traditional categories. He is an African-American historian, a Southern historian, an American historian. Just as he broke the color line in Southern archives as a graduate student, so he broke that same color line in Southern studies as a writer and teacher, moving from the largely segregated field of Negro history (as it was then called) to Southern history, an exclusively white domain. It was never easy. “The world of the Negro scholar is indescribably lonely,” he wrote in 1963, “and he must, somehow, pursue truth down that lonely path while, at the same time, making certain that his conclusions are sanctioned by universal standards developed and maintained by those who frequently do not even recognize him.”
Like Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois, Franklin demonstrated to a skeptical or an indifferent profession that the history of black Americans was a legitimate field for scholarly inquiry and investigation. His first book, published in 1943, broke new ground in exploring the anomalous position of free blacks in the slave South, focusing on North Carolina. His most recent book, cowritten with Loren Schweninger and published in 1999, is
For several generations, for more than three million students and nonstudents alike, John Hope Franklin’s
Throughout his life, John Hope Franklin has used the pen and his voice to “force America to keep faith with herself.” We first met some 45 years ago, when he came to the University of California at Berkeley to teach a course in American social history and I served as his graduate assistant. We have seen each other frequently since that time, most recently when I interviewed him at his home in Durham, North Carolina, for American Heritage .
I’d like to go back to the beginning. How did you come to be born in what was then called an “old Negro town,” Rentiesville, Oklahoma?
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
Was that your introduction to Negro history?
Yes, and I read Du Bois at about the same time,
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?
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.
So we’re drawing up this petition, and the president of the university is nervous. He’s very proud that Fisk has been singled out by the President of the United States, and very unhappy that these young whippersnappers are going to spoil everything by bringing up something unpleasant like the lynching of Cordie Cheek. So he called me in. We didn’t happen to get along, the president and I. And he said, “You know the President of the United States is going to be the guest of Fisk. I think it would be unseemly and discourteous for us to pull on his coattail and urge him to do something about this lynching while he’s here.”
He made me feel pretty bad about it. I was 19, you see, and I had some savoirfaire, but not enough. So he talked me out of making that protest. But only with a bargain that we struck. He said, “If you don’t present that petition to the President while he’s here, I will get you an appointment with the President at Warm Springs.” I thought that was fair [laughs] , so I didn’t press the issue. Of course, I believe until this day that he never even made the effort. I think that was just to get me off his back. He never once talked to me about it afterward. He ignored it as though he had duped me, which I think he had.
What about the teachers at Fisk? I believe you were converted to the study of history by Theodore Currier, among others.
Oh, not among others— by Theodore Currier. It was at Fisk that I had white teachers for the first time, and one of them, Theodore Currier, was the most influential person in my life besides my parents. I took a course called Contemporary Civilizations. It was a kind of overall survey, with lots of different people coming to give lectures on sociology and political science and history and whatnot, and Currier came in and gave some lectures on world history, and I just had never heard any history that exciting.
So, it was not African-American history that brought you into the field but history in general. And you soon knew you wanted to go to graduate school in this history. Why did you choose Harvard?
I couldn’t go to Oklahoma, because blacks were barred, period. And Theodore Currier wanted me to go to Harvard. He loaned me $500 so I could.
In 1935 you went to Harvard as a first-year graduate student. This was your initial experience living in the North. How did it feel? How was it different from the South?
I don’t know. You see, one of my problems is I’m not terribly racially conscious. I mean, until it’s called to my attention, I don’t think about it. I didn’t think about the fact that I was the only black in the history department, the only black in any class I took at Harvard. I just didn’t. It didn’t touch me.
When you left Harvard, you said you didn’t want to be in Cambridge another day. Why?
I didn’t like the pretensions of the place. I didn’t like the way the young people at Harvard tried to emulate the superficial aspects of their professors—you know, walking like them, talking like them, carrying their umbrellas like them, and that sort of thing. And Harvard itself, I felt, encouraged such pretensions. Many of the teachers seemed never to have got over the fact that they were professors at Harvard. Samuel Eliot Morison, for instance, was more interested in putting on a show than in intellectual rigor or teaching. He did write beautifully, but he taught miserably and was interested neither in teaching nor in his students. I didn’t like the air, the atmosphere at Harvard. I never did, never have, I don’t mind saying. This is not based on race.
Did the faculty assume that because you were black you would necessarily work in Negro history?
I suppose they did. In my seminar with Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., he listed a number of subjects on which he thought we might work, and they were in nineteenth-century social history. When he asked if anything interested me on the list, I expressed a preference for Lyman Abbott and the Social Gospel. When another student indicated a similar interest, Schlesinger suggested I might like to read a book on Booker T. Washington or something like that. I said, “No, I want to write on this.”
How, then, did you come to write a dissertation on free blacks in North Carolina?
Well, the first idea I had was to do something in British history. I gave that up because at that time Britain was much farther from me than Mars is now. I mean if you’re going to be a British historian, you’ve got to go to England sometime, and there was no chance in the world that I ever would. So I thought, What the hell do I want to do, and I remembered that I had written a paper for Theodore Currier called “The Free Negro in the South.” I warmed to the subject.
In order to do a dissertation on free blacks in North Carolina, you had to examine the archives in a thoroughly segregated state. How did you manage that?
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 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.
How did you feel about Franklin Roosevelt, who in many ways was so disappointing on civil rights issues but who did help recast the entire black vote in the country?
Everything is relative. That’s what’s so interesting and in some ways tragic about it. He was disappointing. But he was disappointing when you look back more than he seemed in 1936 or 1940. What did you have before him? You see? I mean, he wasn’t doing anything about housing and all kinds of things, but we realize this in retrospect. And the Black Cabinet was a farce, when you think about it now. But then nobody had even been on the same side of the street where the White House was. So it looked pretty good. The crumbs that you grab for when you’re hungry are unworthy of you, but they’re all you’ve got.
Over the years, as historians, we both have played the game where we’re asked to rate the Presidents. So here it comes again. Who would you rank as the three or four greatest Presidents in our history?
Well, I would put Lincoln very high. And despite what I said about FDR, I’d have to put him high. This is not on the basis of his race policies at all, which I now for the most part abhor. You know, I’m gaining more and more respect for George Washington [laughs] . I really am. It might seem strange, but I think it’s from comparing him with Jefferson, and Jefferson falls short every time I compare him with anybody. In addition to my misgivings about him as a man, as a human being, I have problems with him as a President. If I were going to give him credit, it would not be for his Presidency as much as for what he did before his Presidency—for writing the Declaration of Independence, for example. I would put Lyndon Johnson high up, if I didn’t have to deal with Vietnam.
There’s been quite a lot of publicity recently about renaming certain public institutions, such as George Washington High School, because that President was a slaveholder.
No, I’m not in favor of that. Washington, despite being a slaveholder, is clearly the father of the country. He held the country together, he was the symbol of unity in those early days, and I think he grew in office. He did set his slaves free, all of them, not three or four, like Jefferson did. All of them, you see? In his will, to be sure, but that’s better than nothing.
Tell us something about your role in working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the case of Brown v. Board of Education .
I was at Cornell in the summer of ’53, and I got a letter from Thurgood Marshall asking me what I was going to do in the fall. I replied that I was going back to Howard. And he said, “You know what else you’re going to do? You’re going to be working for me.”
Thurgood was a character. Just a character. Thurgood wanted me to be the chief historian in helping write the brief on the very important questions with respect to the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. So, between September and December, I went to New York every week, staying from Thursday to Sunday, and worked at the office writing papers, reading briefs, providing the historical information that they needed, correcting their views about the Reconstruction period. There were others too. Alfred Kelly was there. He was a constitutional historian. Rayford Logan was in and out, as was C. Vann Woodward. There were sociologists and various types of lawyers. I’ve always felt it was a very important period in my life. I was surrounded by lawyers. I’m not claiming I was a principal figure in that operation, but they did show deference to me when I got to talk to them. And they were hard workers, absolutely and completely dedicated. Thurgood was the hardest worker of them all, despite the fact that his wife was dying of cancer at the time. He worked day and night, maybe sometimes all night. I never was there to see whether he worked all night, because I don’t work all night [laughs] .
When the decision came down in ’54, how did you feel?
I felt we’d won the world. Which was too bad. I think all of them felt they’d won more than they actually did win. No one realized when they were celebrating that whites would be plotting to frustrate their gain and make it ineffectual.
How would you characterize your role in the civil rights movement? In 1963, when much was happening, you were the professor reporting for the BBC, and two years later you participated in the Selma march.
I was never a leader, never took any real risks except marching through those narrow streets in Montgomery in 1965. But you know, one tends to exaggerate.
Did you know Martin Luther King, Jr.?
I spoke to him only once, and that was at the airport in Honolulu. I happened to be there as he was on his way to catch a plane to Japan or somewhere. I have served on the advisory board of the King papers and that sort of thing—very limited in my role. We tend, looking back, to make it more than it was. Some suggested that my book
Certainly it introduced thousands to black history in this country. How many copies has it sold?
But the important thing was in the late sixties and early seventies, when there was a drive to increase knowledge about the history of blacks in this country, and that’s when the sales took off. They had been desultory since its publication in 1947. The publisher didn’t want to put out the paperback edition, although they had promised to. They said, “We have a a corner on the market now, and we’re doing well, so we just won’t publish a paperback.” I pointed out that this was a very critical moment, and people were clamoring for some knowledge, and if we didn’t provide this in a paperback to reach a wider audience, somebody else was going to come along and write a weird, highly inflammatory history that would sweep us off the bookstore shelves, because it would reflect the way people were feeling then. So they changed their mind.
In the first edition of
I guess it’s black consciousness. I’m really not sure. I regard it as almost faddish, in fact. After all, this is a book that has not changed its position very much, but people have changed their attitudes. They have gone from Afro to Colored to Negro to Black to African-American. I don’t know what that does to our position or whether it means that we have a new approach at all. I don’t know. I don’t mind African-American. I didn’t mind Negro-American. But there are people who wrote me and threatened that they wouldn’t touch the book unless I changed the name.
A black preacher in Mississippi, when asked how he would assess the impact of the movement on his state, replied, “Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.” Yes, he said, the Jim Crow signs were all gone, no more WHITE ONLY and COLORED ONLY , and blacks voted now and elected blacks to public office. But black politics and desegregation had done little to alter the day-to-day lives of most black Mississippians.
Well, I think I would subscribe to some extent to the part of that statement about economic conditions in Mississippi. But I think things have changed. You can’t say blacks vote and then say nothing has changed. That’s a very, very significant change. The fact that I can buy this house here in Durham, which I couldn’t do when I lived here before, makes a difference. My next-door neighbors are white on both sides. I don’t know whether I should make a judgment as to whether or not they want me here or don’t want me here. The vote can’t make them change their feelings. But I can make the law give me my rights to be able to live here. And if they wanted to go on for the rest of their lives ignoring me, there’s nothing I could do about that. What I can say is that they’ve been very friendly and welcomed me, but I don’t know how much you can ask of the law or of people. You can ask the law to give you equality, even of opportunity and of treatment. But you can’t ask the law to make people change their reactions. Only experience can do that.
But you have said, and I’m quoting you now, “The litigation and the legislation and executive implementation did not wipe away three centuries of slavery and segregation and discrimination.”
Again, you’ve said that racism is far from dead, but that it assumes very different forms and is no longer measured by police dogs and fire hoses. That those who insist that we conduct ourselves as if a Utopian state, meaning a color-blind society, already existed have no interest in achieving it and indeed would be horrified if we even approached it.
I’ll buy that.
That’s a very harsh judgment.
Yes. But I think it’s true. Let’s take that next-door neighbor of mine. I don’t think she’d live there 20 years without having some opportunity to see that maybe some of the beliefs she harbored might not be all that accurate. Then she might be willing to readjust her views. My point is that experience is a great teacher, and when we have the experience, we tend, even if we resist the effort, to shift our attitudes.
W. E. B. Du Bois said in 1903 that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line. You’ve suggested that it will be the problem in the twenty-first century too.
Are you optimistic?
Cautiously. Cautiously optimistic. In Oklahoma, my high school now is a major magnet high school in the city. And although it’s over in the black section of town, far from the dividing line, white people would kill to get their kids in that school. They’re there by the droves—I think it’s 50 percent at least by this time—and that’s because it’s a good school. That’s all. It’s because it’s a good school. So they’re not running out to the suburbs. They’re right there in the heart of town, trying to get their kids into that school.
Not everything that we need to do is necessarily in terms of race. What we have to do is to shore up our society, and the same thing is true for employment opportunities. I wrote a piece once called “Land of Room Enough.” We’ve got plenty here for everybody. We don’t have to scratch each other’s eyes out if we continue to build our society and our economy. That’s why I always end up talking about the schools. When they’re all good, when people don’t think about who is going to be in the school but only want their kids to get the best education, then we’ll have not only nonsegregated schools but integrated schools. And that might lead to an integrated society.