Renowned Historian Dr. John Hope Franklin Comes to MHS
by Ellen Reifler
(November 29, 2006) Even before Dr. John Franklin Hope entered the small conference room at Mamaroneck High School on Friday, November 17, the students waiting for him there were anxious to hear from the famous historian about whom they heard and read so much. As soon as someone announced he was on his way, activity ceased, and everyone found a seat and waited silently for the 91-year-old professor to enter the room.
The students were already aware that Dr. Franklin is foremost a historian, though one who not only studied history but also participated in it. Born and raised in Oklahoma, where his father was a lawyer and his mother a school teacher, he encountered racism early on. He was not able to attend the University of Oklahoma, though his father paid taxes that went to the school. He wasn't even allowed to be in the town that the university was in after sundown. Dr. Franklin has dealt with countless other discriminatory actions since the day he was born in 1915.
Dr. Franklin graduated from both Fisk University (B.A., 1935) and Harvard University (Ph.D., 1941). He has written multiple books, including his best known From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. First published in 1947, it tells the story of African Americans and how their history is intertwined with general American history. Dr. Franklin has also taught at a number of colleges and universities. Beginning in 1956, he was chair of the history department at Brooklyn College, and from 1967 to 1970, he chaired the history department at University of Chicago. He is now Emeritus Professor of History at Duke University. Most recently, he was awarded (along with Yu Ying-shih) the John W. Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity, an honor endowed by the Library of Congress for lifetime achievement in areas that Alfred Nobel neglected to create prizes for. (See: Kluge Prize 2006.)
Despite his advanced age and his many honors, Dr. Franklin interacted easily with the students. The luncheon conversation began with questions about Dr. Franklin’s life. The students had prepared for his visit by reading from his autobiography, Mirror to America, and were eager to learn more. In his autobiography, Dr. Franklin discusses an American history textbook he co-authored in 1965 entitled The Land of the Free. This textbook, which reveals slavery in every light and also has pictures of children of multiple races together, was banned from the California public school system after parents protested its use in the classroom. Many parents wouldn't’t even allow their children in the same room as the textbook, something many of the MHS students found somewhat frightening.
If you were in the same room with the book, “something might happen to you—you might get hit,” said Dr. Franklin. At this, chuckles rose around the room. We all wondered why Americans have been so unwilling to confront our own history. Dr. Franklin gave us insight by saying that Americans simply “don’t want to face their own past.”
The conversation took a new turn as the students began asking Dr. Franklin about his experiences with racism. One prominent event occurred when he was working at Brooklyn College. He and his wife, Aurelia, wanted to live near the college. However, that was a predominantly “white area.” Dr. Franklin, therefore, had an incredibly difficult time not only finding a house to buy, but then finding a bank willing to lend him the funds to purchase the house. “I could teach their children, but I couldn't live among them,” said Dr. Franklin.
Next a student asked Dr. Franklin for his feelings on affirmative action. He said he was in favor of it. When asked by another student if he thinks that people are given things through affirmative action that they don’t really deserve, he said that no matter what, no one can deny that you’ve done something. If you are in college and you write the best paper in your class, no one can deny that you wrote that paper. Dr. Franklin also said that he never accepted things like affirmative action as a reason for having something handed to you. Through hard work he has rightfully earned everything he has gained and always keeps a high standard for himself.
This high standard appears to be what has driven Dr. Franklin to excellence and allowed him to make his mark on American history. Among his achievements was his involvement in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. He said he was brought into the case by a call from Thurgood Marshall. His contribution was to conduct historical research. Though the Supreme Court may have declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional, Dr. Franklin said, “Just because [schools are] desegregated, so called, doesn't mean equal opportunities.” When asked about discrimination in public schools today, Dr. Franklin said that every institution must be judged on its own to determine if things are truly equal.
Dr. Franklin concluded the conversation with remarks on the current state of the world. He noted that we care more about sports and entertainment than about the problems plaguing our world, and he fears that we are on the verge of a catastrophe. “We have lost track of what’s important,” Dr. Franklin said.
These final words made a particular mark on senior Charlie Kaplan who emailed his comments following the luncheon: “While he is a historian, and the bulk of his commentary was on civil rights and equality in America, I think the wisest thing he said dealt with the state of America today. ‘As a nation,’ he said, ‘the opportunities we have are great, the opportunities we take are terrible.’”
But Dr. Franklin also said it is up to the youth to take the world’s problems into our hands, and he has hope in the next generation.
Ellen Reifler is a senior at Mamaroneck High School.