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Let's talk

There's plenty yet to discuss about race relations in America. And John Hope Franklin is just the man to do it.

By Rodney Thrash
Published March 25, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG - John Hope Franklin peers over his gold-rimmed glasses. He leans back, crosses his legs and folds his hands behind his head. He huffs.

"Why do you want to write about a 90-year-old man?"

Nothing about him seems old. He's fit, tall, svelte. Even on a day when there isn't much to do, he dresses sharply. Charcoal sports jacket. Maroon shirt. Gray slacks, creased.

But he is old. He has earned the right to come across as a little aloof. He has worked a long time. Seventy-one years, at least. Taught in a dozen or so universities. Served under several U.S. presidents. "When can I retire?" he asks.

People are always asking him questions. He doesn't mind. It's just that he's 92 years old and sometimes, he needs a break. "Just read my book," he says. He has written or edited 18 of them.

When he winters here, as he has done most of the last 25 years, the last thing he wants to do is answer questions, read manuscripts or give speeches. He craves something else.

"Rest," he says.

- - -

As much as he wants to relax, he can't. He is living history, a repository of memories that go beyond paper archives. He's always being pulled in this direction and that one. Besides, if he doesn't push the conversation on race relations in America, who will?

Franklin hasn't just recorded the history of the South and of African-Americans; he has lived much of it.

He helped research and prepare the brief for the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case that desegregated public schools.

He chaired President Clinton's 1997 Initiative on Race, a seven-member advisory board charged with sparking a dialogue on race.

He is best known for his second book, From Slavery to Freedom. Published in 1947, the book corrected history's omission of African-Americans and acknowledged their contributions to this country. Now in its eighth edition, the book has sold 3.5-million copies and is still widely regarded as the seminal black studies text.

"He has a profound sense of the tragedy and the dilemmas of race in American history," says Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "He's been around for such a long time. He brings a perspective that no one else does in the scholarly world at least. He's still so vital."

Franklin has been visiting St. Petersburg since 1982. The only years he stayed home were 1987 when he underwent treatment for stomach cancer and 1999, when his wife of 58 years, who had Alzheimer's, died.

He first heard about St. Petersburg when a friend visited him in Durham, N.C., his home since the early 1980s.

"He told me about this place, this Garden of Eden," he says. "I came and I came and came again for 20-odd years. I look forward to this every year. It's a Garden of Eden because of the people."

He's the center of a huge circle of local friends. They range from Arsenault, the man whom Franklin calls his "Florida real estate agent," to Virginia Lewis, a 100-year-old teacher he met when they both lived in Chicago.

He purposely comes here in February, Black History Month.

"He's so overwhelmed with invitations," Arsenault says. "They would have him at every event at one end of the country or the other if he didn't do anything about it. He's such a gracious, accommodating person that it's hard for him to say no. One of the ways he's handled this is to make St. Petersburg his winter home."

Franklin doesn't own property here. He doesn't even have a car. If his destination isn't within walking distance, friends give him a lift. He sublets a second-floor condominium at the Beacon on Third Street S. It's near Arsenault's USF office, which is named after him.

"He teases me," Arsenault says, "that he's going to check it out to make sure we're using it properly."

His condo looks like the bachelor pad of someone fresh out of college. The walls are bare. Everything inside, except the flat-screen television and its stand, is beige or white. There are no family photos, no paintings, no bookshelves, no books. Just copies of the New York Times.

He reads it every morning from start to finish, sometimes at the new Barnes & Noble across the street. He visits Selby Gardens in Sarasota and Art Stone near Tyrone Square Mall to buy orchids. Not that he needs any more. Back home in Durham, he has a greenhouse containing an extensive orchid collection. One orchid is named for him: Phalaenopsis John Hope Franklin. He always buys an orchid for Arsenault's wife on Valentine's Day.

He has few other rituals when he's here. Most lines in his day planner are blank. Here, he can be John Hope, as his friends call him, without the commas and titles.

- - -

It's just before noon on a recent Thursday, a friend chauffeurs Franklin to Eckerd College. Driving along Interstate 275, the friend lays out Franklin's itinerary: lunch in the college's international cafeteria, talk with a group of retirees about his latest book, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin.

At lunch, he's surrounded by people wearing name tags that read Academy of Senior Professionals.

Franklin eats baked chicken breast, cauliflower and fresh vegetables with a side of cottage cheese and cantaloupe. He watches his salt intake. Doctor's orders.

Over lunch, the people wearing the name tags pepper him with questions.

About the media.

"Americans have interests in basketball and football and Britney Spears and Anna Nicole," Franklin says. "They're not paying attention to what's going on in Iraq."

His flights on Air Force One.

"I don't count them. I don't remember them anymore."

President Clinton.

"He ate stuff at McDonald's all the time he was president."

Duke University, where he is history professor emeritus.

"There's a story at Duke: Professor was a little late coming to class and he said, 'I'm late because I was tied up. The campus police was giving a ticket to a Mercedes and I had to wait.' All the students jumped up and ran out because they thought it was their Mercedes."

Fishing, which he learned from his mother.

"There are a lot of white pelicans in Montana where I fish."

Wal-Mart.

"I don't even go in there."

NPR's Corey Flintoff.

"Corey Flintoff is skinnier than I am. We told that to a crew that came down to interview me, All Things Considered. Corey Flintoff sent a photograph of himself: Dear John Hope Franklin. Signed Skinny Flintoff."

And Skyway Jack's on 34th Street S.

"I always have to go there. Pork brains and eggs, that's what I like. I don't know anywhere else I can get them."

Don't tell his doctor.

- - -

Franklin's friend pulls into the parking lot outside the Lewis House, on Eckerd's campus. Barely out of the car, he's swarmed by admirers.

"Welcome."

"We're so glad you're here."

As he walks toward the building, gravel crunches under his feet.

Inside, more people crowd him. An Eckerd College professor asks Franklin to speak to his class the following Monday. Franklin pauses. John Hope, the snowbird, wants to rest. Dr. Franklin, the gracious and accommodating historian, can't say no. He gives the professor his personal cell phone number, then takes his seat in the auditorium.

The podium and microphone are in place, but it's too formal, too far from the audience. It's a conversation, Franklin says, not a speech. He sits in a chair in front of the audience instead.

All but one of the audience members is white.

One says he has a Ghanaian friend who came to America with no money and is now a high-ranking official with Bank of America. His friend is frustrated that American-born blacks seem stuck in their environment.

"So from your perspective," the man asks, "how do you see the black community and the hope for the future to really take advantage of the opportunities that America does offer all of us?"

Franklin processes the question. Even with parents who pushed him, two Harvard degrees, a bestseller and access to heads of state, doors have been shut in his face.

For years, the Jim Crow culture delayed his participation as a scholar. He couldn't get full-time positions at predominantly white institutions, only temporary teaching assignments. He was 49 before he taught a class of doctoral candidates. Friends surmise that's why he remains so engaged 22 years after his official retirement. He's making up for time lost.

Franklin's thin lips part. He answers directly.

"I don't think the opportunities are nearly as open as you think so, nor as this young woman from Ghana would think they are," he begins. "The experience of African-Americans in this country is a bitter experience, a terrible experience."

The audience hangs on every word.

"The country was built on their labor to a considerable extent, and the laws of the country were constructed in such a way as to make certain that they labored and that they were degraded by their labor and there was never a time that they were permitted to forget that."

Franklin urges the man and others to read the history and laws of this country. He tells them to peruse Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, written six years after Jefferson co-authored the Declaration of Independence stating all men are created equal.

"He was writing that the Negro smells bad, didn't have any brains, couldn't think, if they did they'd go to sleep."

He leans forward. His voice rises.

"That's what we have to live with. It's not easy to live with that yoke on you all the time. It has become so much a part of our culture and we don't even know when we are insulting people or degrading people or telling them that they're trash and they can't do what other people can. . . . That's difficult to fight. I'm here to tell you. I've been fighting for 92 years."

The night before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, Franklin threw a party at the exclusive Cosmos Club in Washington, which had declared him its 1994 Man of the Year.

A white woman asked him to fetch her coat.

"The things that are expected of me because I am black are hideous," he tells the Eckerd audience. "I could write a book on how many times I've been insulted and the ways I've been insulted since I was 80 years old, not when I was a little boy."

Silence.

That's what Franklin has most wanted. For people to stop and listen.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at (727) 893-8352 or rthrash@sptimes.com.

 


Dr. John Hope Franklin

2006: Co-recipient of the $1-million John W. Kluge Award for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize. "On the day of the award," Franklin says, "they didn't even have anyone there to talk to me. No American newspaper."

2005: Publishes Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pages, $10.20 price on Amazon.com).

2000: Duke University establishes the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies.

1995: Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.

1982: Joins the history department at Duke University.

1964: Accepts history professorship at the University of Chicago. Becomes the department chairman three years later.

1962: Becomes the first African-American member of the exclusive Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C.

1956: Joins Brooklyn College's faculty as professor and chairman of the history department, becoming the first African-American chairman of a department at an all-white institution.

1947: Publishes From Slavery to Freedom; the bestseller goes on to sell 3.5-million copies. (co-author, Alfred A. Moss Jr.; Knopf, 768 pages in two volumes, $31.47 on Amazon.com).

1943: Publishes his first book, The Free Negro in Carolina, 1790-1860.

1936: Receives master's degree from Harvard University on his way to a doctorate in 1941.

1935: Graduates from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. He was only 20 years old.

1915: Born Jan. 2 to an attorney father and schoolteacher mother in the all-black town of Rentiesville, Okla.

 

[Last modified March 24, 2007, 17:35:21]


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