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Scholar’s autobiography is also a history lesson

SHARE Scholar’s autobiography is also a history lesson
John Hope Franklin has written "Mirror to America."

John Hope Franklin has written “Mirror to America.”

Duke University

No one had a more graphic view of the racial problems of the 20th century than John Hope Franklin, a preeminent black American historian.

At the age of 6 he was thrown off a train for mistakenly sitting in "the white people's coach," and 74 years later he was ordered to hang up a white woman's coat in a Washington, D.C., club to which he belonged.

Now at the age of 90, an eloquent and thoughtful Franklin has written "Mirror to America," a heart-wrenching autobiography that also tells the story of America.

Franklin filled in some of the blank spaces by returning to his childhood home in Rentiesville, Okla. Speaking by phone from his home in Durham, N.C., the James B. Duke professor emeritus of history spoke perceptively about his early "indelible" confrontations with discrimination.

He remembers his schoolteacher mother taking him to school, giving him a pencil and paper and putting him in the back of the room, "where she hoped I would be quiet. She introduced me to the world of learning. When she helped the other kids, I followed her instructions. When she wrote on the board, I wrote it down. We wait too long to train kids today."

When he suffered discrimination, Franklin's mother interpreted it in a positive way. "She said, 'You prove to them you are as good as they are.' " That remained with me. I have sought to prove that to whomever I've met wherever I've gone."

Yet Franklin never knew when a cruel scare would come. When he was 19 and innocently leaving an ice cream store in Mississippi, he was confronted by a large group of white men who threatened to lynch him. He reacted with quiet assurance. "To say I was frightened would be an understatement. But when you see a dog that might bite you, you can't run from the dog. When the men broke ranks and began to walk away, I felt I was going to get away, but I didn't want them to know how petrified I was. So I casually walked to the car."

Through the efforts of good teachers, Franklin got into Harvard, where he found a strange mixture of acceptance and condescension. "Harvard was quite pretentious. I still feel that way. In spite of my grades, I was not invited to be a teaching assistant. I assumed it was because I would have to grade white boys' papers. I did have a fellowship, which, frankly, was liberating for me. I didn't have to worry about spending the time teaching, so there were some advantages even in discrimination."

He held his professors in awe — such scholars as Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., Samuel Eliot Morison, Frederick Merk and Paul Buck. Morison thought he was being kind when he told Franklin he was "descended from abolitionist stock." But Buck was humble enough to think Franklin knew more about the American South than he did, so he forbade Franklin from ever sitting in on his class.

At Harvard, Franklin was shocked at his first brush with anti-semitism. "I didn't even know at first what it was, yet it became clear to me that there was strong anti-semitic feeling against Oscar Handlin, the leading student in our class. I said, 'What in the world is going on?!' I was distressed by it. Handlin and I became very good friends throughout life — and, of course, he went to the top at Harvard."

Perhaps the most indelible experience of all came when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Franklin felt a patriotic need to serve his country, so he approached the U.S. Navy office to enlist. He told them of his background and educational experience, which included a Ph.D. in history from Harvard.

Unimpressed, they humiliated him. Then he was treated similarly by the other services. "I was pretty mad. I decided they didn't deserve me. I volunteer and they tell me I will scrub floors and wash dishes. I thought, 'I'll never peel potatoes for you!' It was a stern, determined, angry reaction.

"I began to figure out ways I could trick those people and stay out. I'm not ashamed of it. The shame of the country was that they kept me out of the jobs I was qualified to do. I fought them to the death. When the war was over in 1945, I was classified 1A, but I was not drafted."

His brother, Buck, a married high school principal, was drafted, only to be consigned to the dirty work of the service. He emerged a victim of post-traumatic stress syndrome. "My brother was as tender and sweet as he could be. He didn't have a mean streak like I did. I always felt he had a bad deal from the service. No white person with his qualifications was drafted that I knew about."

Franklin's academic climb was difficult but steady. He was hired by Howard University, Washington, D.C., the country's foremost black institution, then Brooklyn College, then the University of Chicago.

Unsure how to campaign for civil rights, Franklin said he "wanted to use my scholarship to improve the climate of the country. We believed in equality but didn't practice it. I had to keep a delicate balance."

Even as a scholar, Franklin suffered discrimination. His major book, "From Slavery to Freedom" (1947), was a critical success but initially a slow seller. Too many people shied away from a book written by a black scholar.

Although Franklin has made a host of white American friends, he believes "You almost have to be black to know what goes on all the time in the life of a black."

He is "cautiously optimistic" about change in the 21st century. "I would be blind if I didn't think we were better off than when I was 20 — or even when I was 50. But when I see what's going on nationally — the president taking positions against civil liberties, and technology outdistancing the ability to think — I get pretty discouraged."

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com