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."
Criticize he did. In fact, he calls one negative review of a book by a respected Southern historian the turning point in his career.
After Harvard he'd taught at a couple of black colleges in North Carolina, then moved on to Howard University. There he was asked to review E. Merton Coulter's "The South During Reconstruction."
"It was as bad as 'Birth of a Nation,' " he says. By this he means that its take on the period after the Civil War was, among other historical distortions, replete with false stereotypes of former slaves displaying brutish behavior toward long-suffering Southern whites. "Here it is, the middle of the 20th century, and this man Coulter writes a book that is no more enlightened, shows no more reflection, no more research, than if he had written it in 1890," Franklin says.
Franklin's review eviscerated Coulter's book, but there was a problem. Most historians, and especially white historians, didn't read the Journal of Negro Education, which had published the review. So he sent 200 copies of his revisionist critique to influential members of his profession.
"I think that did as much for me and my reputation among historians as almost anything that I had written or would write," he says.
The concept of historical revisionism has taken on a negative connotation of late, at least among cultural conservatives, who see it as the wrongheaded uprooting of historical truth for political purposes. But to most historians, revising our take on the past as we gain further knowledge and perspective is quite simply what they do. And what John Hope Franklin and his peers were doing, as they brought their scholarship to bear on American history, was revisionist in a fundamentally important way:
They were adding the perspectives of people who'd been ignored.
Franklin's writings are too extensive to catalogue here. But notable among them is "Reconstruction After the Civil War," a book that helped change historical interpretation of that period.
"From Slavery to Freedom" is also fundamentally revisionist: Franklin's text, as Columbia's Eric Foner has written, forced "establishment" institutions to take black history seriously and made it clear "why no account of American history can be complete that does not accord African Americans a central role."
Speaking of established institutions: Franklin pioneered the integration of their faculties as well. In 1956, he moved from Howard to become chairman of the history department at a predominantly white institution in New York.
This was big news in the 1950s. "Negro Educator Chosen to Head Department in Brooklyn College," read the headline on the front page of the New York Times. Later, Franklin would be recruited by the University of Chicago, where he became the first African American historian to join the permanent faculty.
Here's where that Rosa Parks analogy really comes into play.
Parks's and Franklin's stories are similar not only in that they involved important advances made by courageous individuals. In each case, it's also important to remember, the triumphant pioneer was preceded by equally courageous individuals for whom the timing was not quite right.
Without taking anything away from Parks's heroism, Franklin told Diane Rehm yesterday, we should not forget that "there were many, many heroes in this struggle for equality." Take the 50,000 slaves who risked death, sometimes repeatedly, to escape from bondage. Or take the support system around Parks that allowed her to prevail.
"What we have in Mrs. Parks is a convergence of circumstances," he said.
Ditto for John Hope Franklin, the Rosa Parks of historians.
In his book, and again in the interview at the Madison, Franklin ticks off the names of "all these great scholars in the generation just before me" who were as qualified as he was: Rayford W. Logan, E. Franklin Frazier, Alain Locke, Sterling Brown. "They were all there at Howard University when I got there, sitting up there with their bags packed and nowhere to go," he says. "And there I am, just about 10 years younger, shhhhh" -- he makes a smooth, whooshing noise -- "just going through."
He's making his ascent sound too easy, of course. Franklin's scholarly heirs can scarcely imagine what it was like when he was starting out, trying to do research in segregated archives, being dismissed when he moved beyond his assigned pigeonhole. When he wrote "The Militant South," for example -- a groundbreaking book on the violent culture of the slave states -- "the person who reviewed it for the Harvard Press said, 'I don't know why you would want a view of the South written by a Negro, but if you do, John Hope Franklin is probably the best you can do.' "
But forget that backhanded, racist compliment from half a century ago. Franklin has without question done his best. And the times have changed enough so that his best is acknowledged as being as good or better than anyone else's.
John Hope Franklin's many books and other writings have helped establish the central role that blacks played in American history.