A Personal Journey Into America's Past

John Hope Franklin is in town to promote his autobiography,
John Hope Franklin is in town to promote his autobiography, "Mirror to America." There has been progress, the historian says of the course of civil rights in America, but "we're not where we need to be." (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 3, 2005

Tell John Hope Franklin that he's the Rosa Parks of historians and he lets out a long, astonished laugh.

"Please," he says.

Okay, we won't push him on that right now. But the comparison is not as silly as he makes it sound.

Franklin is in Washington this week to talk about his newly published autobiography, "Mirror to America." Now an emeritus professor at Duke, he's a handsome, white-haired man in a gray suit whose upright bearing makes him seem far younger than his 90 years. Fellow historian David Levering Lewis has described him as "a pioneer scholar; a splendid humanist; a shining model to generations of students, scholars, and activists," as well as "a man of prodigious generosity, prudent counsel, and unaffected grace."

Tuesday he spoke at the Library of Congress. Yesterday he did "The Diane Rehm Show" on WAMU-FM and spoke at Politics & Prose in Northwest Washington.

A lot has changed in Franklin's 90 years. Some things have not.

In 1921, when he was 6, a conductor put him off a segregated train, along with his sister and mother, because his mother refused to move to the car reserved for black people. In 1947, he published "From Slavery to Freedom," which has been credited with putting African Americans back into the nation's history. It has sold 3.5 million copies and, in its co-authored eighth edition, is still in print. He has won honors too numerous to count, including upward of 130 honorary degrees, and in 1995 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The night before that medal ceremony a decade ago, he dined with friends at the Cosmos Club, where he had become the first black member in the early '60s. A white woman handed him a coat check and instructed him to fetch her coat.

So there's been progress, he says, folded into an armchair at the Madison Hotel, but "we're not where we need to be."

Franklin (he's "John Hope" to his friends) was born in Oklahoma in 1915. His mother, a teacher, took him to school with her; by 5 he was reading and writing. He gave the valedictory speech at his segregated Tulsa high school's graduation. At Nashville's Fisk University, he fell in love with Aurelia Whittington -- with whom he would spend six happily married decades -- and also with the study of history.

"I was a sophomore in college before I met a white man who treated me as his social and intellectual equal," he writes in "Mirror to America." That man was Ted Currier, a Fisk history professor, who not only encouraged Franklin to apply to graduate school at Harvard but also lent him the money to get started there.

At Harvard he was lonely and sometimes patronized. He persevered. He also made an important decision: He would not be pigeonholed as a black historian. "I wanted to be in the big time," he explains with a chuckle. "I wanted to be out there criticizing the big boys on the main playing field."

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