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Historian and Scholar Dr. John Hope Franklin Dies at 94

Posted: Mar 27, 2009

I first met Dr. John Hope Frankin in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1992 . He was the guest speaker at the Queens University commencement of my nephew Paxton Mobley. I would gladly have driven the 10 hours to Charlotte just to hear the great man speak. Getting to see my nephew graduate was purely lagniappe. Meeting Franklin was one of the great moments of my life. I was teaching Southern Literature at Athens State University and literally beside myself with excitement over seeing in person one of the great historians of the twentieth century.

Franklin (1915-2009) lived through almost half a century of the Jim Crow era in the South. He was part of nearly every major event of the Civil Rights Movement, serving on the team that assisted Thurgood Marshall in preparing for the Brown Vs. Board of Education case.

Brent Staples of The New York Times writes of his "unfinished" conversation with Franklin: what it was like to grow up a black intellectual in the Jim Crow south. For example, Franklin and his wife were traveling by car and did not know that Pearl Harbor been bombed until they reached their destination two states away. Why? Of course, the car had no radio, but most importantly, blacks traveling in the segregated south dared not stop at restaurants or "white only" establishments along the route. They packed their own food and even relieved themselves along side of the road. Black owned service stations along the highways in the south in the 1940s were almost non-existent. "You took your life in your hands every time you went out on the road," Franklin told Staples in a 2006 interview with Staples.

I, myself, am no stranger to the Jim Crow south. In spite of coming of age in Alabama after the Brown Vs. Board of Education decision, I saw precious little integration in the deep south of the mid to late ' 50s. I remember when the "white only "sign was removed from the water fountains in J.C. Penney's in Decatur, Alabama. I also recall that everyone knew which fountain was which--even without the sign.

The Greyhound bus station in Athens, Alabama, had "white only" signs on their restrooms until forced to remove them by law, and the waiting room was divided between whites and blacks--if only by a slim partition. However, that partition may as well have been the Berlin Wall. Those were shocking times. I was too young to fully understand, but it did not take long for me to grasp the extend of such terrible injustice.

I had the good fortune to be reared in a liberal and loving environment. Even as a child, I was encouraged to think independently and make my own decisions, to judge people, as King admonished, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I was not, as many of my contemporaries were, "carefully taught. " One of my favorite songs came from the Rodgers and Hammerstein  muscial South Pacific ":You've got to be taught to be afraid/.Of people whose eyes are oddly made,/And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,/You've got to be carefully taught."

Dr. John Hope Franklin was a teacher and an ambassador of good will. Like his contemporary Horton Foote who died earlier this month ten days short of his 93rd birhday, Franklin was a scholar and a gentleman. He will be sorely missed, but his works and his legacy live on.

---Penne J. Laubenthal

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mybullit says...

What a wonderful tribute! I appreciate your insight and remember such stories myself. / Diane Lehr

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