David Levering Lewis on John Hope Franklin's Moral and Intellectual Poise





In"A Life of Learning," an address to the American Council of Learned Societies 20 years ago, John Hope Franklin recalled the 100th-birthday wisdom of the ragtime composer Eubie Blake, who said that had he known he would live so long,"I'd have taken better care of myself." John Hope Franklin not only took good care of himself until his death last month at 94, but he also took great care of the memory and self-concept of the American people.

A cautionary truth about the life of John Hope Franklin is that, in that time long ago before he became John Hope Franklin, author of From Slavery to Freedom (the book, originally published in 1947 and now in its best-selling eighth edition, virtually created the industry of African-American studies) and 11 other monographs; or the first African-American to be chairman of an academic department in a historically white institution; or the first person of color elected to the presidencies of Phi Beta Kappa (1973-76), the Southern Historical Association (1969-70), the Organization of American Historians (1974-75), and the American Historical Association (1978-79); or holder of the Guinness Book of Records distinction for an unsurpassed number of honorary degrees; and John Hope Franklin, cultivator of orchids of incomparable beauty — what must not be forgotten in the glow of celebration is the truth that, long before there was John Hope Franklin the Institution, there was a Rentiesville, Okla., boy born black in a place where, and growing to adolescence in a time when, failing to take extremely good care of oneself could be fatal.

Although blessed with caring parents and the modest advantages of his father's law practice,"the quality of life in Rentiesville was as low as one can imagine ... no parks, playgrounds, libraries, or newspapers," Franklin wrote stoically about those early years. As the Franklin family prepared in 1921 to move from Rentiesville to Tulsa, Okla., with its thriving black business community, that community was destroyed by one of the worst race riots in American history. My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin (1997), the senior Franklin's memoir edited and published by John Hope and his son John Whittington Franklin, is a remarkable account of those separate-but-very-unequal times....

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