John Hope Franklin: Writing His Autobiography

Historians in the News

Darryl Owens, writing in the Ft. Wayne News Sentinel (Jan. 30, 2004):

Sometimes, history needs a nudge. And other times, only a good arm-twisting will do.

John Hope Franklin ought to know. Twice he nearly missed his waltz with history, flirting with sexier prospects.

When he was an undergraduate at Fisk University, it took a dynamic professor to nudge him into his quest. The second time it took extra prodding.

Franklin received a letter from a publishing house suggesting he write a book on African-American history."I said, `Maybe down the road,'" he recalls.

But the publishing representative visited and"really twisted my arm" with a philosophical charge and a $500 advance:"He told me this is what I ought to do. I decided I'd better take him on."

That decision led Franklin to write a seminal volume that would not only record the fractured history of African-Americans in the diaspora but also launch an unparalleled career in letters and activism.

"John Hope Franklin is by any measurement one of the premier historians of our time," says Richard Blackett, the Andrew Jackson professor of history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. His" commitment to the struggle against inequality and oppression, his mentoring of younger students, makes him, in every sense, a gentleman and a scholar."

Now, 57 years later,"From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans," is in its eighth edition and continues to speak about the place of stolen Africans in American history.

But these days Franklin is examining history from an uncharacteristic vantage point: his 89 years.

With perhaps his final major project, tentatively titled"Vintage Years: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin," he is shifting his critical lens to study the nexus between his life as a black man and the history of a people often pushed to the margins of American experience.

"I don't know," Franklin says when asked what his book will reveal about the man considered the dean of black historians."I just bare my soul."

In a real way, his childhood offers a snapshot of the extremes of black American life.

Born in 1915 in Rentiesville, a black village 65 miles south of Tulsa, Okla., Franklin was named after John Hope, a black educator and opponent of Booker T. Washington's accommodationist ideas for blacks. As the son of a lawyer and a schoolteacher,"I grew up thinking that you were supposed to read and write all your waking hours," Franklin says.

He learned that race mattered when a white conductor booted him from a train for daring to sit in the"white-only" coach. As the 6-year-old boy and his mother walked the six miles back to Rentiesville, his eyes burned with shame.

Don't cry over the law, his mother said. And she reassured him with words that would lodge in his soul: You're as good as anybody. Prove you're better than that.

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