John Hope Franklin's story is the stuff of American legend. Born in Oklahoma 90 years ago, into a family that was making its way into the middle class, he graduated with distinction from Fisk University, then earned his doctorate in history at Harvard. He rose steadily through the teaching ranks, moving from North Carolina College to Howard University to Brooklyn University to the University of Chicago to Duke. He published scholarly works of distinction and originality, most notably From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (1947), which has sold 3.5 million copies. He achieved prosperity if not great riches, traveled the world, and was accorded numerous honors, among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
That Franklin takes justifiable pride in these and many other achievements is evident throughout Mirror to America, but it is pride tinged with disappointment and bitterness. Franklin is African American and has experienced too much of the bigotry to which black Americans even to this day are routinely subjected. He also has experienced tokenism and its many variations and offshoots, causing him to wonder at times whether all the advances he made were due to his own accomplishments and abilities or whether some were extended to him by whites and/or white institutions who wanted to use him as window-dressing -- whether he was hired not because he was the best but because, to borrow Stephen L. Carter's term, he was the "best black."
That this haunts Franklin even at this late hour of his life is understandable, but it is also regrettable, for his work stands confidently on its own, without benefit of patronizing or favoritism. Not merely is his scholarship exemplary by any standard -- by the highest standard -- but he has repeatedly demonstrated that, as he puts it, "an African American scholar could work in the mainstream of American history rather than be confined exclusively to subjects dealing with African Americans." More than just scholarship distinguishes his career. The "scholar in society" has been a lifelong concern of his, as envisioned and defined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his seminal essay "The American Scholar," to wit:
"From the very beginning of my own involvement in the academy, the goal I sought was to be a scholar with credentials as impeccable as I could achieve. At the same time I was determined to be as active as I could in the fight to eradicate the stain of racism that clouded American intellectual and academic life even as it poisoned other aspects of American society. . . . I always believed that if I could use my knowledge and training to improve society it was incumbent on me to make the attempt. Thus, in addition to teaching and writing, I served as an expert witness in cases designed to end segregation in education, most notably at the behest of Thurgood Marshall, and I marched in Montgomery to make common cause with those who sought in other ways to destroy racial hatred and bigotry."
Franklin came by his ambition, determination and activism honestly. His parents, Buck and Mollie Franklin, were accomplished -- his father was a lawyer, his mother a schoolteacher -- and set examples of "integrity and . . . high moral standards" by which all four of their children lived. Oklahoma in the 1920s and '30s was as segregated as any other place in the country (the Franklins moved to Tulsa not long after the deadly race riots of 1921), but the elder Franklins refused to knuckle under and repeatedly stressed to their children that the color of their skin had nothing to do with their abilities or aspirations.
Still, bigotry was an inescapable presence. When Franklin was at Fisk, a ticket agent "almost leaped through the ticket window and shouted to me that no 'nigger' would tell him how to make change." In Alabama in 1945, doing research at the state's archives, he was greeted by the chief archivist: "You don't look like a Harvard nigger to me!" Traveling the upper Midwest in 1953 with his wife and young son, he discovered that "I could not secure accommodations for my family anywhere in the state of Michigan" and had to cross into Canada, where the first motel at which they stopped had a room for them. Trying to buy a house in Brooklyn in the late 1950s, he was repeatedly rebuffed by realtors "unwilling to be the first to damage the 'integrity' of the neighborhood by selling a home to an African American." Even in 1995, the night before receiving his Medal of Freedom, after giving a dinner for a few friends at the Cosmos Club (of which he is a member), "a white woman called me out, presented me with her coat check, and ordered me to bring her coat."
Within academia, Franklin encountered subtler but evident forms of bigotry. At Harvard, he was appalled that members of the Henry Adams Club declined to consider his friend and fellow student Oscar Handlin as an officer because, they said, "although Oscar did not have some of the more objectionable Jewish traits, he was still a Jew." At an interview with Samuel Eliot Morison, the celebrated historian patronized him by saying "that he descended from 'good abolitionist stock.' " During the 1950s, he was given visiting appointments at Harvard, Wisconsin and Cornell, none of which offered him a permanent professorship: "I don't doubt a reason I was invited to each department was so that they could remind any and all that they had pioneered in having had Franklin on their faculty, albeit briefly." Throughout his career, he has rightly resented being ghettoized in black studies, as he wrote in an essay, "The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar":
"Negro scholarship had foundered on the rocks of racism. It had been devoured by principles of separation and segregation. It had become the victim of the view that there was some 'mystique' about Negro studies, similar to the view that there was some 'mystique' about Negro spirituals which required a person to possess a black skin in order to sing them. This was not scholarship; it was folklore, it was voodoo."
Yet as Franklin readily and lavishly acknowledges, it was a white professor of history at Fisk, Theodore S. Currier, who encouraged him to study history, urged that he apply to Harvard for graduate school, who took out a loan of $500 (a lot of money in 1935) to help defray his expenses there, who "treated me as his social and intellectual equal," who, "along with the self-confidence my parents instilled in me, . . . gave me the determination to reach any height that my ability and energy could take me."
Currier was one of two people at Fisk who changed Franklin's life. The other was his fellow student Aurelia Whittington, whom he married in 1940, entering a fruitful, happy, mutually supportive union that lasted until her death in January 1999. At their 50th anniversary, "I could truly say that there was never a time when she uttered one word of doubt about what we should do with our lives. Her support of me in all my endeavors was more than I deserved, and at this point in our marriage, I wanted to indicate in every way possible my gratitude for her unselfish support. . . . Not only was this our golden anniversary, it was another chance to express my admiration, appreciation, and love for 'Old Gold,' as Ted Currier always called Aurelia."
Apart from that passage, a few others about his son Whit and those about his encounters with bigotry, Franklin rarely lets emotion bubble to the surface in Mirror to America. Though he doesn't mind calling people or institutions on the carpet when that is warranted, mostly he is reserved, gentlemanly and statesmanlike. He's entitled, but one wishes he'd let a few more cats out of the bag. Obviously he loves music, for example, but he only hints at his tastes in music and the pleasures it gives him. What does he read apart from history and the innumerable documents foisted on him by the innumerable commissions, boards and associations to which he has committed himself over the years? Too often he settles for lists -- lectures given, places visited, famous people encountered -- rather than self-revelation. One has to read between the lines, and is left to guess at the man within. But he has been, in the best and deepest sense of the phrase, a genuinely public-spirited citizen, urging his country to do its best by all his fellow citizens and helping his country move in that direction. If his life is indeed a mirror to America, then it is more to an America to which we should aspire than to the America we actually are. *
Jonathan Yardley is The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic. His e-mail address is email@example.com.