I had the privilege of working with a group of teachers several years ago as part of a Teaching American History grant titled American Rights and Race Relations: The Legacy of Brown vs. Topeka. Together for three years, the group studied the century before the 1954 Supreme Court case, the actual case and the half-decade since.
It was an eye-opener for me.
With both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in American history, I knew a lot. But I didn’t know a lot about African American history. We had the chance to read and discuss a ton of stuff that I wasn’t familiar with and had not studied. Some of that material was written by John Hope Franklin.
I was familiar with his book, From Slavery to Freedom, but hadn’t read any of his latest stuff. Together with books such as Why Black People Tend to Shout: Cold Facts and Wry Views from a Black Man’s World, Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black, The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White and Slaves in the Family, Franklin’s work had a huge impact on my historical worldview.
Franklin passed away last week at the age of 94.
The grandson of a slave, Franklin wrote Freedom in 1947 and later worked with future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall on the Brown vs. Board of Topeka case. He joined civil rights marchers and leaders during the 1960s in Alabama and was selected by President Clinton as the chairman of Clinton’s One America Initiative, charged with directing a national conversation on race relations. He served as president of the American Historical Association. In 2006, Franklin was announced as the third recipient of the John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity.
He once said that on the evening before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Clinton in 1995, a woman at his club in Washington asked him to get her coat. About the same time, a man at a hotel handed his car keys to Franklin and told him to get his car.
“I patiently explained to him that I was a guest in the hotel, as I presumed he was, and I had no idea where his automobile was. And, in any case, I was retired.”
I knew Franklin only by his writings and speeches. But I am a better person, and America is a better place, because of Franklin’s scholarship and his public service.
Leonard Pitts suggests that the best way to honor Franklin’s memory is to read his books. I couldn’t agree more.