Editor's note: John Hope Franklin was The News & Observer's Tar Heel of the Year in 1998, selected by the newspaper's editors. The annual honor recognizes leadership by individual North Carolinians. This is Franklin's Tar Heel of the Year profile, published on Dec. 27, 1998.
A Southern historian has his work cut out for him. The South can be a place of convenient distortion, of romantic tales of slaves content on the plantation. John Hope Franklin's South, he decided early on, would not be influenced by a victim's rage or a hometown gloss. He would dispassionately render a portrait of black and white.
This is the story of the South he has taken around the world, to Argentina, Australia, England, Germany, Japan, Norway and Russia. By virtue of his age and his life experience, this unsentimental South is delivered through a mix of personal anecdotes and scholarly research. His book "From Slavery to Freedom" is considered the definitive text of the African-American experience. His stories are essential to his vision: a better future grounded by the lessons of the past. But John Hope Franklin is not just a scholar.
That's why, approaching his 84th birthday and 13 years after his official retirement from Duke University, Franklin is in demand as never before. His modest brick house on Pineview Road in Durham sometimes feels more like a way station than a home. The dining room table is stacked with mail, research papers and phone messages, typed and listed by an assistant in order of priority.
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In just the past six weeks, he has huddled with Bishop Desmond Tutu in Senegal, been honored by the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund in New York City and given a keynote address at the National Communication Association in New York City. All this, only weeks after completing 15 months as chairman of President Clinton's advisory board on race, perhaps the most visible assignment of his career.
Most people would consider a presidential appointment the culmination of a life's work. In Franklin's case, it is just a chapter in the story of a great intellectual, a figure mentioned in the same breath as C. Vann Woodward, E. Franklin Frazier, Thurgood Marshall and John Kenneth Galbraith. He, like one of his mentors, W.E.B. Du Bois, is a black leader embraced by the white establishment, but also willing to push it.
"He is one of the most credible and prolific historians of this century," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in a recent interview. "His writings on American history was a focus of the African-American experience, which is basically the untold dimension of American history. American history is the relationship between the slaves and the slave masters. It's America's moral dilemma."
"Dr. Franklin is a legend in the field of race relations," Clinton added in a statement made this month.
Clinton chose Franklin not only for his accomplishments, but also for how he continues to achieve in a society that still manages to let him down. Franklin has lived through race riots, civil rights crusades and days when he, with a doctorate from Harvard, couldn't get a sandwich because of his dark skin. It has been a long road, for a poor boy in an all-black town to become an ambassador for the South.
And it was that persistence Clinton needed on his board. During a time of relative racial peace, it wouldn't be easy to prove that race still mattered. Franklin would also have to convince the other side, those fed up and eager for a quick fix, to be patient, that "The President's Initiative on Race" was just a step in the ongoing quest for a truly equal society.
The greatest challenge would be Franklin's leap from scholarship into politics and a spotlight under which every motive is questioned. Almost from the start, he would face something he had rarely encountered: criticism. But once his cardiologist told him that his body could handle the pressure, Franklin knew he had no choice. How could he, a man whose life was crafted by the notion that reasoned discussion could bring change, turn down the ultimate assignment?
"The president wasn't asking me to serve at some sort of PTA meeting," Franklin said. "This was the presidential commission on the subject. I thought of it as a task for a social scientist-hyphen-humanist who had been working on the problems of race and the nation for 50 or 60 years."
Franklin had dabbled in the political world, serving on two commissions for President Jimmy Carter and, in 1987, testifying in Congress against the Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork. But on Clinton's race board, Franklin was in charge, running meetings, talking to the press, sending requests to the president. For 15 months, the white-haired, supposed-to-be-retired professor from Duke University would be under the microscope. From the start, he heard from the critics.
On June 15, 1997, before even the first meeting, prominent black conservative Ward Connerly and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich published a piece in The New York Times blasting the race commission. Connerly wanted to know: Why wouldn't it reconsider affirmative action?
Franklin is still baffled by the question. His logic was simple. He had studied the social policy, lived through its effect and deeply believed affirmative action helped level the playing field. The president agreed. So did his colleagues on the race board. Recently, in an interview at his home in Durham, Franklin remembered an exchange about affirmative action at one of the board's meetings. He recounted the discussion the same way he carried it out at the time, speaking slowly, leaning back in his chair, never raising his voice.
"It is for the purpose of increasing diversity, and I don't see where we need to explore that," Franklin said.
What about the opposition to it?
"Well, the opposition is there, we know it's there," he said. "Why would you have a discussion of the opposition to it? That wouldn't get us anywhere in terms of increasing diversity."
For Franklin, a devoted newspaper reader, the Connerly editorial led to a general disillusionment with the media. The board's progress generated lots of stories, most with the same theme. The panel's work would be described as "pallid" (the New York Times), "stalled" (San Diego Union-Tribune) and "hamstrung" (Time Magazine). London's Weekly Standard, in an article titled "The Disgrace Commission," slammed Franklin for "running a fact-finding commission that deplores facts."
There were reports of a dispute he had with fellow board member Angela Oh, which they both called fiction. There was a steady flow of conservative attacks. What didn't get reported, Franklin says, were the suggestions made to the president. Beef up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for example. As for the big problem - the race gap - Franklin wondered how so much could be expected, so soon. Real change tends to crawl, not run. One day, a Latino man from New Jersey even showed up unannounced at the house on Pineview. He had driven South after being fired, because of his race, he believed. Was there anything John Hope Franklin could do?
"People would ask me, 'Well, how's it coming?' as though I was out solving the problem," Franklin said. "You're not going to be successful in six months or 12 months or 15 months with a problem that's been with us for 200 or 300 years."
He reacted to the criticism by refusing to react. As he had throughout his life, whenever Franklin felt pressured, he didn't flinch, he remembered his mission. He had been asked to run a dialogue on race. A dialogue on race is what he would run. It was not always a popular decision, particularly for those people who wanted a heated confrontation on race. The question - debate vs. dialogue - became central to the board's work, to the point that its report, filed this fall, includes six full pages stressing the distinction, that "debate is to persuade others to one's point of view É dialogue is to exchange ideas and find common ground."
Franklin's temperament, his restraint, defined the advisory board. In Denver, a group of Native Americans shouted him off the stage, believing they had been excluded from the debate. In Annandale, Va., a man, complaining that nobody was "up there talking about the white people," raved at a microphone until an audience member asked him to leave. Conservative commentator William Bennett, a guest that day, called the man a fool. Franklin tried to talk to the man. Again, he was out-shouted.
"I never saw an outburst," said Oh, a Korean-American board member. "I never saw even an informal dismissive attitude on his part."
Kathleen Matthews, a television news anchor who moderated the Annandale forum, said the meeting reminded her of a college symposium.
"I felt as if I were in one of his classrooms," added William Winter, the onetime governor of Mississippi who served on the board.
A style his colleagues considered a strength became a shortcoming in the view of his critics.
"Franklin is out of touch with the reality of our time," Connerly said in a recent phone interview. "He is trying to shape public policy based on a life and time that is no longer."
Franklin said he wasn't angry at Connerly; he just disagreed.
"What he has to say doesn't really disturb me. He caters to a group of people who want to turn back the clock."
As a scholar, Franklin had worked to make sure his writings were not "polluted by passion." As a man, he had always kept his cool, rendering the all-too-common moments of indignity sadly, absurdly comic. In a hotel lobby in Oklahoma last year, a white man asked him to get his car. "I'm retired," Franklin replied. As the leader of the president's race board, Franklin operated the same way.
This fall, the board released its 136-page report, with recommendations as specific as increasing minimum wage, as broad as creating another "Presidential Council" to examine race. As with much of its activity, the board's report was overshadowed by the Starr investigation. It also met the same kind of reproach that had surrounded the Clinton panel all along: Dismissed as lightweight by the commission's critics. Franklin will reserve judgment until the president responds.
"I'm not disappointed yet," he said. "If he doesn't do it soon, I'll probably ask him. I'm not going to invest 15 months and see what I've done go down the drain."
If Franklin emerged unscathed from his time on the race board, it is, he says, because of what he has already been through. His life's frustration is no single incident, but instead this country's legacy of pigeonholing black people into a particular place in society.
"The real problem," Franklin said sarcastically, "is that people don't stay in their place. And when you get out of your place you're uncivil. If all Negroes would walk like they're supposed to walk, talk like they're supposed to talk, work like they're supposed to work, we wouldn't have any riots or clashes or conflicts."
He grew up in Rentiesville, Okla., an all-black town less than a mile wide. In 1921, his father, Buck Colbert Franklin, opened his law office in Tulsa, about 60 miles away. He was going to move his family, but a race riot changed those plans. B.C. Franklin's office, along with most of the black businesses in town, were burned down by angry whites.
John Hope's mother taught him about composure. When he was 7, they were kicked off a train after mistakenly sitting in a section reserved for whites. The segregationists called this "getting out of place." Walking home through the woods, Mollie Parker Franklin told her son he had done nothing wrong; he was as good as any of those people on the train. Don't waste your tears. Crying won't change a thing.
From then on, John Hope wouldn't be overcome by emotion. He would keep it to himself. Then move on.
"It's a wonderful resiliency," said his son, John Whittington Franklin, program director at the Smithsonian Institution's folklife center in Washington. "It's a way of not being bogged down with either bitterness or anger or rancor that for some people might be depressing or debilitating."
His father taught him about hard work. B.C. Franklin moved his family to the all-black town of Rentiesville after a racist judge in Louisiana ordered him out of the court - even though his client was on trial. He opened his office in Tulsa and, after it was burned down, opened a new office in a tent. And every night, the elder Franklin would either read or write. He learned the law that Jim Crow wouldn't teach a black man. He also wrote fiction and essays, most of which were discovered only after he had died.
"He prepared himself," Franklin says now. "That's where I got the notion of moving toward perfection. Get it right."
His history professor at Fisk taught him he could work with whites.
In the summer of 1935, bachelor's degree in hand, Franklin wanted to attend graduate school at the University of Oklahoma. He couldn't because the school was all-white. Though he had been accepted at Harvard University, Franklin figured he would never be able to raise the $400 tuition. Then he spoke with Ted Currier, the young, white history teacher he had studied under at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.
"Money will not keep you out of Harvard," he said.
Currier told Franklin to catch a train to Nashville. When he arrived, Currier walked to a bank and took out a loan. Franklin would have to pay him back, which he did by working two jobs at Harvard. More importantly, he would fulfill Currier's wish, that "you get up there and prove that you're as good as I think you are."
His wife taught him to think big.
Franklin always maintained an uncomplicated will to achieve. Work hard; do the right thing. It was Aurelia, his wife since 1940, who considered career advances and geographical leaps. Today, Aurelia, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, lives in a Durham nursing home. But through the years, she was his partner. In the '40s, when Franklin was teaching at North Carolina College for Negroes, later N.C. Central University, he came home excited about land for sale near the school.
"We're going to buy us a lot and maybe one day we can build a house," he said.
"What are you talking about?" she said. "You won't be here for two more years."
Man in a hurry:
Franklin made the most of his first stop in North Carolina. His first book, about free blacks in the state before the Civil War, would be published here. In Raleigh, he also encountered W.E.B. Du Bois, a Fisk University graduate, the first black to earn his Ph.D at Harvard and founder of the NAACP. In 1939, while having dinner at the Arcade Hotel, Franklin spotted his hero sitting alone. On this occasion, Du Bois responded with a characteristic chill.
'Pardon me, Mr. Du Bois," he said. "My name is John Hope Franklin."
"I am a graduate of Fisk University, class of 1935."
"I am a graduate student at Harvard University and I am here in Raleigh doing research for my dissertation on free Negroes in North Carolina."
A pause and then Du Bois, without looking up, said, "How do you do."
Later, they became friends.
In 1944, Franklin, 29 and living on Linwood Avenue in Durham, was asked by Knopf to write what he is likely to be best remembered for, "From Slavery to Freedom." He spent more than a year on the book, conducting his research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., as Aurelia, a librarian at the North Carolina College for Negroes, supported him financially.
"From Slavery to Freedom" was a groundbreaking work, detailing life in Africa, the machinations of the slave trade and the slow march to what would become the civil rights movement. The book, now in its seventh edition, has sold more than 3 million copies.
Howard University hired Franklin away to Washington, D.C. And then, in 1956, Brooklyn College landed him on the front of the New York Times. At the time, he was the first black appointed to head a department at the college.
By then, Franklin had developed the style that he retains to this day. Incivility is not an option. He is gracious, whether approached in a supermarket by a stranger or at an awards dinner by the closest of friends. Work is to be done, even on New Year's Day if the deadline is approaching. His exhausting schedule, he admits, helps him cope with his wife's illness. But it is no different from the schedule he has kept all of his life.
"John Hope's work habits were really just awesome," said Abe Eisenstadt, a retired history professor who started at Brooklyn College in the fall of 1956 with Franklin. "He was in his office from 9 to 5 with the door open every day of the week. Dinner was from 5:30 to 6:30. He always had a Manhattan. He was down in his basement doing historical work every evening."
His friends still talk about Franklin's boundless energy. He is razor-thin, six feet and 174 pounds. Only his white hair betrays his age. When he is traveling, he will not so much as lie back for a quick snooze on the plane. He prefers to read his New York Times. There is much to do.
Everywhere, Franklin embraces the inevitable stream of admirers. At the New York Hilton, a simple breakfast - coffee, fruit and a muffin - included shaking hands with the strangers who just had to tell him that they, too, had read his work. At the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund dinner, he hugged Eisenstadt and told him "we should be going to the Carnegie Deli tonight." He met Ed Bradley, the "60 Minutes" reporter, who told Franklin that reading "From Slavery to Freedom" during his freshman year in college "opened the door for me because it showed me where I came from."
When it was his time to speak, Franklin rose from where he was sitting, at the head table next to Motown Records president Clarence Avant, and strode to the podium. He is an eloquent orator, a statesman, precise with language - 1954 became "the 17th of May, nineteen hundred and fifty-four" - and careful to pepper every few paragraphs with a perfectly timed one-liner.
Throughout the evening, there was hardly a mention of the race board. "This is for John Hope, not for with whom John Hope associates," said Elaine Jones, the head of the LDF. "If he had never met President Clinton or served on a race commission, he would still be here tonight."
There is a sense of detachment when Franklin discusses the race board. This is, friends and former colleagues say, part of his personality. Do your best and move on. The board's written work - the report - is filed, awaiting the president's response. Any day, he might get more letters, sent to the White House and forwarded to the dining room table in Durham. But even if the board's work is done, Franklin's vision remains.
"You have to keep working on it," he said. "Otherwise, it won't ever get fixed."
But he is talking about cutting back on his commitments, accepting fewer speaking requests, traveling less. He wants to tend to the orchids he grows in a greenhouse around back, to his wife, whom he tries to see every day.
In March, Oxford University Press will publish a book on runaway slaves Franklin wrote with a former student, Loren Schweninger. He says he has one book left in him, his autobiography.
Early in December, Schweninger visited to put the finishing touches on their book. Franklin, as usual, did the cooking. Salmon steaks. Broccoli and potatoes. Plates warmed before serving.
At the table, talk turned to Franklin's days at St. Augustine's in the early '40s. He had just finished his doctorate at Harvard and his first book. But Franklin had a conflict with the school's white president, the Rev. Edgar H. Goold. In the past, Goold had condescendingly advised him to stay humble. On this occasion, Franklin asked Goold to write a letter to the draft board exempting him from the army. In 1941, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Franklin had tried to volunteer for what he had been told was a national emergency. He was turned away because he was black. After that, Franklin was determined not to serve. But in 1943, when he asked Goold to write the letter, the president refused. "The army might be good for you," he said. "It might teach you to hang up your clothes."
Franklin stormed out of the office, slamming the door. He phoned James E. Shepard, the president of North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham, and found himself another job.
"Weren't you angry?" asked Debi Hamlin, Franklin's assistant.
"For a day," he said. "The next day I just moved on."