John Hope Franklin in Great Lives in the Law

Main Content

Living History: “Great Lives in the Law” features John Hope Franklin

Born in the tiny, all-black town of Rentiesville, Oklahoma, in 1915, John Hope Franklin said he learned the fundamental values of hard work and diligence from his father, a self-taught lawyer, and his mother, a teacher. His mother also insisted he direct his energies “in a proper route, and not some frivolous activity.”

FranklinFranklin recalled being put off a train his mother had flagged near Tulsa when he was just six years old after she had refused to relocate from a whites-only car with her young son and daughter while the train was moving. Finding themselves standing by tracks on the edge of a wood, Franklin’s mother told him to dry his tears.

“She said ‘[Discrimination] is a way of making a distinction between black and white. But they can’t make a distinction between good and bad. There’s no white person on that train who is any better than you. You shouldn’t waste energy [crying]. You should spend your energy proving you are as good as any of the people on that train.’”

Franklin, James B. Duke Emeritus Professor of History at Duke University and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has spent over 80 years doing just that. He engaged a rapt Duke Law School audience with stories from his life and observations about race in America October 26 th, when he took part in the Program in Public Law’s “Great Lives in the Law” series. He was interviewed by Douglas B. Maggs Professor of Law Walter Dellinger, who called co-teaching a constitutional history class with Dr. Franklin for seven years “the most wonderful experience of my life.”

Renowned for his seminal work on African American history, From Slavery to Freedom, Franklin said that a course in his second year at Fisk University “changed my life.” By the end of that year, he had abandoned his plan to study law in favor of history, with the blessing of his father, who told him to “just be great.” He credits his professor, Theodore Currier, with shaping his courses so that Franklin would be properly prepared for graduate school at Harvard, Currier’s alma mater. When Franklin became the first African American to be accepted to Harvard in 1935 “without condition” — but also without financial aid — Currier ensured his trip to Cambridge.

“He put $500 in my hand and said ‘Money won’t keep you out of Harvard.’ And with that, I got on the train. I realized at some point that he had projected himself in me. He had not completed his Ph.D. at Harvard. I had to do what he didn’t do. And I proceeded to try to do it.”

At Harvard, Franklin’s first experience with bigotry did not involve race, but anti-semitism. On the nominating committee of the Henry Adams Club for graduate students in American history, Franklin nominated Oscar Handlin, a straight “A” student and active member, as club president. The reaction was dead silence.

“Then someone said, ‘Well, he doesn’t have all the obnoxious attributes of a Jew, but he’s still a Jew.’ I didn’t even know what they were talking about. I had never heard the term. I didn’t know that one white person was any different from another–they were just white.”

Franklin’s candidate was rejected in favor of a white student who never passed his Ph.D. exams, he noted ruefully, while Handlin went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and spent his career on the Harvard faculty, both as a history professor and director of its library. Franklin eventually realized that being invited to sit on the nominating committee of the Henry Adams Club ensured that he didn’t run for office, just as a fellowship, which precluded working, ensured that he did not enter the classroom as a teaching assistant.

When he graduated from Harvard in 1939, Franklin was ready to return to the south to start his career. “The north wasn’t straight either about this whole subject of race. No historically white university of any kind would have me [as an instructor] in the 1930s, so it was the south for me, and historically black institutions.”

Franklin worked at Fisk University and St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh before joining the faculty of the North Carolina College for Negroes (later to become North Carolina Central University) in Durham in the mid-1940s.

In 1945, he was approached by an editor at Alfred A. Knopf to write a “history of Negroes in the United States.” Though Franklin was reluctant to put other projects on hold, he was persuaded by an “irresistible” $500 advance, but then found himself “under the most remarkable pressure. I was teaching five courses, with no office, no carrel in the library, no place to work.” When his time writing in the stacks in area libraries–including Duke’s–proved untenable, his wife, Aurelia, insisted on supporting him while he relocated to a carrel at the Library of Congress during the first term of 1946-47.

“That’s when I broke the back of that book. I worked day in and day out, night in and night out, Sunday in and Sunday out, almost around the clock.” He sent the manuscript to Knopf on time, in the spring of 1947, much to his editor’s surprise.

“[My editor] said ‘We told you we wanted it this spring, but we didn’t expect it until the spring after next.’ I didn’t realize I had any alternative except to finish it.” While he called initial reviews “less than friendly,” Franklin credits the enormous success of From Slavery to Freedom to the big civil rights push of the late 1950s and early ‘60s; it is now in its eighth edition with over four million copies sold.

Franklin made front-page news in 1955 when he was recruited away from Howard University–the “capstone” of Negro education–to become the chair of the history department at Brooklyn College.

“That shows how far we had to go in 1955 that an appointment to a [teaching] job would make the front page of The New York Times. It’s enough to make you pause and think how unsettling it was, how terrible it was that it would make that kind of news in 1955, and yet that’s where we were.” Franklin subsequently went on to teach at the University of Chicago, to travel and lecture widely in North America, Asia, and Africa, and ultimately settled at Duke University.

Asked by Professor Dellinger how far race in America has come since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in which Franklin was involved, Franklin responded that the country has come less far than he had hoped.

“We might be better off in some ways. But as long as we have more blacks in jail than in college, as long as we have more blacks unemployed than we have in college, as long as we have a system that will not provide adequate and decent affordable housing even for people who can afford it, we’re not very far. I cannot be persuaded that we have moved very far if we are not trying to do something in the way of remedying a society that condemns its most promising young black men to a life of degradation–a life of despair–unless our society believes they are inferior mentally and socially. And if, as a society, we are that demented, we are in terrible shape.”

Still, he said, staying true to his mother’s lessons about properly directing his energies, he has no bitterness. “I have no time for it. I don’t have the energy for it. I’m not going to let them get me down.”

The “Great Lives” series features conversations with lawyers and jurists whose lives have been distinguished by substantial legal accomplishments. In his introductory remarks, Program in Public Law Director Chris Schroeder acknowledged that Franklin was the first non-lawyer to be featured, but was an appropriate choice due to his “profound influence on law at a critical time in our country’s history.”

A webcast of “Great Lives in the Law” with John Hope Franklin is available.