Barry Saunders

Connecting with the late John Hope Franklin through his books and music – Saunders

John Hope Franklin speaks during a 1997 forum in Durham.
John Hope Franklin speaks during a 1997 forum in Durham.

Carol Johnson was angry at herself, and she should be.

Anyone who has never heard of John Hope Franklin should be incensed that their education contains such a gap. At least Johnson, 38, was intent upon rectifying the gap in her knowledge.

I met Johnson on Sunday at an estate sale at the Durham home of Franklin, the late scholar who is every bit the chronicler of his age that Herodotus and de Tocqueville were of theirs. We were among a couple dozen people going through what remained of the remarkable man’s effects that were being sold by estate liquidator Gay Gasper. Because it was the second day and the event was an hour from ending, many of the most-coveted items were long gone.

Franklin, the historian that historians consulted, died in 2009. Remember Santayana’s famous aphorism – those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it?

If we forget our past, it won’t be because of Franklin. Gasper said that as she was going through the house taking inventory before the sale, she pulled a few books off the shelves. “The first was signed by Ken Burns to Dr. Franklin, thanking him for his help on a documentary. The next one was from the attorney for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.”

And on and on and on.

If Johnson was angry at herself for not previously being familiar with Franklin, I was angry at me for missing the first day of the sale just so I could sit up in a bar watching the Tar Heels pound Pittsburgh in basketball.

Want to know how you know you’re late for an estate sale? When you have to step aside so the two dudes carting out the box springs and mattresses they just bought can get by.

Of course, I felt better after learning that getting there early wouldn’t have guaranteed me first dibs on Franklin’s signed books and other memorabilia. Johnson said she arrived Saturday at 5 a.m. – the sale started at 8 – and was still only seventh in line. Of the six people in front of her, she said, one was a man from China who was after a Chinese print he’d seen online, and the other five were men who appeared to be professional booksellers.

Her fears were reinforced, she said, when the early-arriving quintet went directly to the shelves and started scanning the books and, depending upon what the scanner revealed, plucking them from the shelves.

“They just bum-rushed the bookshelves,” Johnson, said. “You could tell they had an agenda. You’ll probably see those same books on eBay” being sold for a jacked up price.

The late Secretary of State Henry Stimson is most noted for the dictum “Gentlemen don’t read each others’ mail.” Nor, he should’ve added, do they go through their book stacks and definitely not through their albums without an invitation.

How many of you would find it less revealing to run buck naked through Crabtree Valley Mall at noon on Saturday than have strangers going through your albums or passing judgment on your musical playlist?

Anyone going uninvited through my albums would be confounded, unable to tell if the collection was compiled by a 13-year-old pigtailed pubescent from Poughkeepsie (The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar”), a septuagenarian from Senegal (Roger Whitaker’s “The Last Farewell”) or a Beechnut-chawin’ trucker from Benson (“Glen Campbell’s Greatest Hits.”)

So don’t look.

Yet, I found myself – feeling guilty all the while, but not guilty enough to stop – perusing Franklin’s albums and books. Since I knew him and had many pleasurable conversations with him, I convinced myself that he’d be cool with me being there. Not surprisingly, and as you’d know after spending 10 minutes with him, he was well-rounded intellectually and in his spare time. Within 30 seconds of entering the brick home I’d picked up a book on Nero and an album by Nyro – Laura Nyro. There were albums featuring Schubert, Mendelssohn’s violin concertos, Jimmy Durante, Les McCann and Tom Lehrer. I bought that one.

The books! Lawd, the books. Even a perennially day-late-and-dollar-short dude such as I was able to score some interesting ones, despite the fact that the mercenaries had already cherry-picked most of them. Sure, I could’ve found some of the remaining books in a bookstore or online, but I wouldn’t have the thrill – yes, thrill – of knowing that Dr. Franklin had read the exact same book I was now reading, probably while seated in front of the fireplace by which I stood.

So impressed with Franklin was Johnson that she said she called her older sister back in Ohio to tell her about the remarkable man in whose home she now stood.

“Her response is still ringing in my ears,” Johnson said, her own disappointment still ringing in mine. “She said, ‘Stop living in the past. You need to forget that.’”

As Johnson walked to her car with DVDs and books she’d bought from the great scholar’s estate, I had the feeling that her foray into the past – into this past – was just beginning.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9