Blogs > Cliopatria > Eric Arnesen: Review of John Hope Franklin's Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin

Jan 1, 2006 5:05 pm

Eric Arnesen: Review of John Hope Franklin's Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin

[A professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Eric Arnesen is currently Fulbright chair in American studies at Uppsala University in Sw.]

For more than six decades, John Hope Franklin has placed his firm and decisive imprint on the history of the American South, African-Americans and race in the U.S. The mentor of several generations of undergraduates and graduate students, he delivered countless lectures in prominent forums around the world and educated perhaps hundreds of thousands through his monographs and textbooks.

>From humble origins in the Jim Crow South, he rose to the heights of academia, always taking his broader civic responsibilities seriously. His constant ambition was to "be so dedicated a scholar and teacher that the entire profession, indeed the wider world, would take notice." This was a goal he achieved many times over. In "Mirror to America," the nation's most-prominent African-American historian finally takes himself as his historical subject, reflecting on his personal, scholarly and political life over the past 90 years.

During his long and engaged life, Franklin was repeatedly reminded of the ubiquity of racism. "I grew up in a racial climate that was stifling to my senses and damaging to my emotional health and social well-being," he recalls. Born and raised in Oklahoma, Franklin lived in an entirely segregated world. When he was 6, he and his mother were thrown off a train for mistakenly sitting in seats reserved for whites. The public schools he attended in Tulsa were all black, as was the college he attended, Fisk University. As a 19-year-old research assistant for prominent black sociologist Charles S. Johnson, Franklin narrowly avoided being lynched for interviewing sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta.

Segregation did little to curb Franklin's intellectual ambitions. Nurtured by parents who insisted on his abilities and encouraged by teachers (particularly white Fisk historian Theodore Currier, who became his lifelong friend) to excel academically, Franklin pursued a doctorate in history at Harvard University in the 1930s. Excluded from the dormitories, he boarded with a local black family; when encouraged by professors to pursue distinctly black history topics, he initially demurred.

"A day, and often an hour, didn't go by without my feeling the color of my skin--in the reactions of white Cambridge, the behavior of my fellows students, the attitudes real and imagined struck by my professors." His 2 1/2 years there were "stifling," he recalls. Unlike his student colleagues with "affluence and influence," he had only his "determination and a corresponding work ethic to fall back on."

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