By CHARLYNN SPENCER PYNE
On the evening of July 11, historian John Hope Franklin spoke to an audience of more than 300 Library staffers, historians, professors, teachers, students, community activists, and others—generations of whom had used From Slavery to Freedom (first published in 1947 and now in its eighth edition)—to study, teach and research the history of African Americans.
The crowd in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Thomas Jefferson Building had gathered to hear the distinguished historian in a long-anticipated discussion of his own life that began 86 years ago in the all-black town of Rentiesville, Okla. Mr. Franklin also provided an update on his tenure as the Library's first John W. Kluge Distinguished Visiting Scholar, during which he has focused on writing his autobiography.
Dr. Billington, in his introductory remarks, said that Professor Franklin has received "almost every prestigious honor possible for a historian," including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1995) and 130 honorary degrees from accredited universities. He also noted that Professor Franklin has written 12 books and edited nine; his most recent is the autobiography of his late father, My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin (Baton Rouge, 1997), co-edited with his son, John Whittington Franklin.
Mr. Franklin received his A.B. from Fisk University (1935), his M.A. (1936) and Ph.D. (1941) from Harvard University. He has taught at Fisk (1935-36), St. Augustine's College (1939-43), North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University, 1943-47), Howard University (1947-56), Brooklyn College (1956-64), the University of Chicago (1964-) and Duke University (1982-) where he presently serves as James B. Duke Professor of History Emeritus; he is also professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.
Professor Franklin thanked the Library of Congress for selecting him as the first Kluge Scholar and noted that before assuming residency in the Kluge Center, he had "been stuck in high school" in the writing of his autobiography. He said, "Some folks suggested that I just take the GED and move on! But now I have graduated from Fisk, received my Ph.D. from Harvard, and arrived at my third teaching job at the capstone on the hill—Howard University." He also noted his long and close relationship with the Library that began 62 years ago, in 1939, when he was a graduate student.
Professor Franklin then read from the first chapter of his autobiography, tentatively titled Vintage Years. The first chapter covers the first 21 years of his life, from his birth on Jan. 2, 1915, through his graduation from Fisk and his admission to Harvard. The son of an Oklahoma lawyer and Mississippi schoolteacher, he recalled learning to read and write at the age of 3 as he sat quietly in the back of his mother's classroom; his father's move to Tulsa, Okla., in 1921, the year of the infamous race riot that delayed the family's move for another four years; his years at Fisk in Nashville, where he first experienced "crude, raw racism," met Aurelia Whittington—with whom he would enjoy 67 years of courtship and marriage until her death in 1999—and where in 1934 teenager Cordie Cheeks was dragged from a Fisk-owned house and lynched after a grand jury refused to indict him for the rape of a white girl. As president of the student government, Mr. Franklin was thwarted by the president of Fisk in the student body's efforts to petition President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who visited the campus shortly thereafter.
Professor Franklin, who will return to the Kluge Center in the fall to continue work on his autobiography, discussed further his relationship with the Library and related topics in a July 24 interview with this writer. (An audiotape of the interview will soon be available to researchers in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division reference collection.) Highlights from that interview follow:
You first used the Library of Congress in 1939…?
Yes, I was a graduate student [at Harvard]. I had taken my residencies and I was at the dissertation stage. I was writing a dissertation on free Negroes in North Carolina, 1790 to 1860. And so I came here to do some work. Reading primarily all of the secondary works that I could find; and some newspapers, and some manuscript materials—but not a great deal of that. That would wait until I got to North Carolina.
Did the [Library of Congress] reading rooms practice segregation? (President Woodrow Wilson [1913-1921] expanded segregation in federal government buildings in Washington, a policy that President William Howard Taft had begun. In 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 prohibiting racial discrimination in government departments and defense industries and establishing the Fair Employment Practice Committee.)
No, no, I don't believe that there was any segregation at the Library of Congress.
What about the rest rooms and eating facilities?
No, not in the rest rooms, not anywhere.
In your after-dinner remarks [on July 11] you said that when you signed the contract with Albert Knopf to write From Slavery to Freedom you were living in North Carolina and your wife suggested that you come here [to the Library] to work?
Well it's very difficult to describe that miniature apartment in which we lived. I can say this, that I didn't have any work space; nor did I have any work space at the college where I was teaching [North Carolina College, now North Carolina Central University]. That was most unfortunate. No teachers had offices. … I had my classroom, and I could work in there if another class wasn't scheduled to use that room. And the library only had tables for the students in the reading rooms. There were no carrels or study rooms at the college. So literally I had nowhere to work except the table in the kitchen in our apartment. So my wife, who was herself a librarian, knew how pained I was and so she said, 'Why don't you just go to the Library of Congress, where you can do your work properly?' And I said, 'I'm sorry, but I don't know how we can afford it.' And she said, '…I'm working. As long as I'm working I will send you what you need to stay in Washington.'
And so I came to Washington in August 1946. And I lived in Carver Hall on Elm Street, it's a Howard University dormitory. … And I lived there until December 1946, coming to the Library every day, six days a week, by streetcar and/or bus. And that was when I really broke the back of From Slavery to Freedom.
I had a study room by that time, and I used it … every day. Willard Webb, who was head [chief] of the Stack and Reader Division, was very strict about the use of the study rooms. He was very liberal about giving them out, but very strict about their use. And if you didn't use your study room, he'd take it away from you! He had a way of going around checking, 'calling the roll' was what he called it. Local professors … would sign up for a study room and it would be convenient if they used it. But if they didn't, it would just be there. And Webb considered that an abuse of privilege and opportunity.
Were there other African American scholars with a study room?
Oh, yes. Several professors at Howard University had study rooms.
I think of Abram Harris, the economist, who very often had a study room. And sometimes Rayford Logan had a study room, and various people—economists, historians, political scientists and types like that had study rooms here.
It was a marvelous opportunity to meet people from other universities. All the other universities in the area, in 1946, were segregated. There were no blacks at George Washington University or Georgetown University. No blacks at the University of Maryland. So, one way that one could meet them [white professors] was here, at the Library. And in that way we developed friendships, some very close friendships that I still have were developed during that very time. …We would get together socially and visit each other's homes. One probably was not welcomed at the other universities, but we were welcomed at these friends' homes. And so the historians from Maryland, Georgetown, George Washington, and so forth, we exchanged visits, our wives met each other, and we did have normal, collegial relationships.
You said [on July 11] that you could only eat [with a white colleague] at Union Station. Was that in racially mixed company? There was no cafeteria at the Library?
There were just some snack bars, the Madison Building had not yet been built. By 1946 the Adams [Building] was built, but the eating places at the Library were just snack bars. … If we wanted to get together for a meal, we either went to the Supreme Court restaurant or the restaurant in the [United] Methodist Building. They both were excellent places. There was no interracial eating on Pennsylvania Avenue, or Independence [Avenue], or any of these places on Capitol Hill—privately owned places. The only place near Capitol Hill that you could eat if the Supreme Court and Methodist Building were closed [on the weekends] was Union Station. You could always eat at Union Station.
From Slavery to Freedom was published in 1947, and you came to Howard University in 1947?
Yes, I came to Howard in September 1947.
Tell me about Howard, those were the 'glory days'…
As I will say in my autobiography, it was what we [African American scholars] regarded as the final institution because that was as far as you could go … And I was 32 when I was appointed a full professor at Howard, and I raised the question in my mind then: Am I ready to go to the last place that I can go to? And that was, literally, the last place that I could be certain that I could go to, since it was unthinkable that there could be any black professors at any of the schools in the area, or even at Columbia, or at Yale, or at Harvard, or at Michigan or at, you name it. … So that you regarded yourself as having reached as far as you could go if you got to Howard.
Now I don't want to be unfair to any of the other exceptional and very good African American universities, historically black colleges and universities, as we call them. Fisk University from which I graduated was an estimable university; and that cluster of institutions in Atlanta, particularly Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Spellman College—they were all good. Morgan State University was very good. But none was a university in the sense that Howard was with a law school, school of architecture, school of dentistry, school of pharmacy, school of medicine, graduate school—they didn't give the doctorate, but everything short of the doctorate.
And publications like the Journal of Negro Education. It was really a formidable institution of higher learning. And when you got here you were 'all dressed up with nowhere to go.' And as you've said, there was this very impressive concentration of black scholars. There were some distinguished white scholars too. I remember [Leon] Shereshefsky in the chemistry department. …But the concentration of black scholars, E. Franklin Frazier, Rayford Logan, Leo Hansberry, Charles Eaton Burch, Sterling Brown, Alain Locke, you could go on and on. They were all here; they were my colleagues. It was breathless, there was Charles Drew and a whole bevy of very distinguished medical scientists.
You have to understand, or appreciate the fact that we who were here at Howard could see its faults. The teaching load was indescribably heavy; the provisions, the facilities were inadequate. And we who had been to major institutions, really major institutions, could see the contrast between this institution that said that it was something and that we thought was something, and these other institutions that we had attended as graduate students which were really something. And the distance between the two institutions, that is, Howard University on the one hand and this cluster of major institutions on the other, was very far; the distance was very far. Now one of the things that was unhealthy about this was that since we knew that we had no where to go, and since we knew how inadequate Howard University was, we spent a good deal of time, an inordinate amount of time, criticizing Howard. That was our favorite pastime—criticizing Howard University.
What was it like being a black intellectual at that time? You'd gone to white graduate schools, but you understand that you weren't going to be 'good enough' to teach in these schools?
Oh yes, it was quite clear that you weren't, we won't say good enough. They weren't broad enough. They were so prejudiced and so smitten by the venom of racism that they weren't going to have you. It was not that we felt inadequate. It was not that we felt underprivileged in an intellectual sense. It was that we knew where we could go and where we couldn't. We knew that we couldn't get there, no way in the world. And so, there we were.
Now a very important point, and this has to do with the Library of Congress, is that if you're all dressed up and have no where to go, are you going to stay dressed up? Are you going to stay prepared? Are you going to continue to do research? Are you going to continue to write and publish? And if so, for what? For what reasons? It has to be only for personal aggrandizement, or personal taste, or personal, I wouldn't say ambition because you are not ambitious to go anywhere, you can't. ..You can't think of this as being an exercise that will be rewarded. If you come to the Library and rewrite the Encyclopaedia Britannica who's going to praise you for that? They'll say 'It's very good, now you go on back to Howard where you belong.' And that's the cloud under which we lived.
Here and there one got an opportunity to look into the 'Promise Land' but not really to savor it. For example, in 1950, I had been at Howard for three years, and in 1950 I was invited to be a visiting professor at the summer school at Harvard University. And I took that letter and I showed it to Rayford Logan, the chair of my department, and he just gasped because this was unheard of, unthinkable, indescribably beyond the pale, so to speak. … I obviously would accept that invitation, but I did not know what the implications were. What did this mean? It couldn't mean that I was being looked over to come to Harvard. No. And it was quite clear when I got there that this was a sort of token—an expression of tolerance, or esteem, or something—but not an encouragement to be a part of the larger intellectual community. I was publishing, not only had I published From Slavery to Freedom but I had another book in the works, and still another on the drawing board. I was really busy, but for what? You had to decide that you were doing it for your own sanity and your own enlightenment, and to show that you could be in the league with others, although they wouldn't have you in the league.
How did you remain so committed to the profession of being a historian? Early in your career you turned down a deanship, and you continued to turn down university presidencies and ambassadorships to remain, as you say, 'a student and teacher of history.' What was the source of your inspiration?
The source of my inspiration was twofold. One was I did enjoy, I did love the work that I was doing. The scholarship was just immensely rewarding and although it wouldn't get me promoted out of Howard, that was all right. Secondly, it was to show, without any hope of reward, that I was as good as those other people who were getting rewards. I had seen it happen during the war [World War II]. For example, when I got my Ph.D. before the war started and I couldn't get a commission … in the service of my government. And I saw these boys who had flunked out at Harvard rising steadily in the profession, in the historical section of the War Department, and so forth. I saw all that. And I saw them way down the list from where I was moving up at the major universities in this country. And so it did me personally a lot of good to be able to be out there on the firing line, even if I wasn't going any further [than Howard].
I must say that [by] beating at the door … I was calling attention to myself. So that when I went, at the invitation of C. Vann Woodward, to read a paper at the Southern Historical Association in 1949, the Southern Historical Association was very upset about it. The program committee said, 'Why would Vann Woodward do this to us? To have this character, and not even notify us until he'd been put on the program. Where is he going to stay? Where is he going to sit on the platform? Is he going to be standing on the platform and look down at white folks?' ….Vann was very calm. He said, 'Franklin is very resourceful, he might bring his pup tent and K-rations and put out a tent on the campus of William and Mary.' He knew that Douglass Adair, the editor of the William and Mary Quarterly, had already asked me to stay at his house. Doug wanted me to stay at his home for really selfish reasons. His children had never been in the presence of an educated black person and he felt that this was going to be part of their education, but I enjoyed being there.
…I had the satisfaction of breaking down the barriers of the Southern Historical Association and reading a paper there. … If you keep nibbling away at the barriers, maybe you can knock one down one time. It may take a long time. Twenty years after I read that paper at the Williamsburg meeting of the Southern Historical Association, 20 years later I was president of the Southern Historical Association. Or, five years after I was a visiting professor at Harvard University, I was chair of the Department of History at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. That wasn't Harvard, to be sure. But that was Brooklyn College, where up to that point it was unthinkable, unheard of, that a black person should have that job. And it was such a spectacular appointment that The New York Times had me on the front page of its first edition on the morning of Feb. 15. … I didn't think it was spectacular; it was just a job as far as I was concerned, but they thought it was.
You mentioned that Rayford Logan was chairman of the history department when you were there [at Howard University]?
Yes. He brought me there, I would say. He had met me in 1938 when I was a graduate student at Harvard. Well, he met me before that, in 1936, when he came up [to Harvard] for his final examinations. After the war, after World War I, he stayed in Europe until 1923 or '24 … and didn't ever intend to come back to the United States. The contrast was so crushing, and he was so bitter about the way he had been treated as a young person in the United States that he was going to stay in France. Then his mother became ill and he had to come back. And he decided that, 'Since I have to stay here I might as well complete my graduate studies,' and that's what he did, and so he was just winding up when I went to Harvard. He got his Ph.D. and he taught at Virginia Union University, and then Atlanta University, and then he came to Howard University in 1938.
Was Carter G. Woodson (the 'Father of Black History') here then? Not at Howard, but in Washington?
Dr. Woodson taught at Howard for a semester or two … in the early 1920s. By the time I got to Howard, or certainly by the time I got to graduate school, and that was when I first met Dr. Woodson, he was already the director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History [ASNLH]. He gave all of his time and attention to managing the association, editing the Journal of Negro History and editing the Negro History Bulletin. And leading it [ASNLH] in a way that it has not been led since. Dr. Woodson was here, but he was not connected with Howard. Rayford Logan was here, and in addition to being involved in Howard—as a professor and department chair—he was also active in the association.
The first time I went to the association [annual conference] in October 1936, it met in Petersburg, Va., at Virginia State College. You see it couldn't meet at any of the hotels in any of the cities. … And the new president of the association was there attending her first meeting as president, that was Mary McLeod Bethune. The previous president, for whom I'm named, had died in February 1936. That was John Hope, the president of Atlanta University … She was here in Washington as the assistant director of the Youth Administration. I've never seen a character more remarkable than she was. And Rayford asked me if I wanted to go to breakfast with Mrs. Bethune. And I went to breakfast, but I don't know if I said a word I was so awed by her, and by him too, but she was really an overpowering person. And I remember so well what she said to him that morning. She said, 'Rayford, my boy, if I were not an educator, I think I'd be a politician,' and she began to regale us with stories about Washington and her experiences here. She made a good president of the association. …The association began to decline shortly after the death of Dr. Woodson; he died in April 1950.
You were a pallbearer at his funeral?
Yes, I had become very close to Dr. Woodson, I think as close as you could get to Dr. Woodson. He was somewhat remote but very genial, very personable, but you got only so close to him. Whenever I would come to Washington, this was before I became a professor at Howard, I would always go by and see him and he would encourage me. He put me on as an assistant editor of the Journal of Negro History. And he inspired me and encouraged me in so many ways. … Dr. Woodson was very generous. And that's the point I want to make because people thought he was closed and selfish, and critical of people who might be regarded as his competitors. I remember when I wrote From Slavery to Freedom people said, 'Well, that'll be the end of you and Woodson because you are going to be competing with him, with his book.' I said, 'I don't think so.' And Dr. Woodson was very encouraging to me. I was on the program [ASNLH annual conference] the year that book came out. He urged me to do something on George Washington Williams. … That book is a result of the encouragement that Dr. Woodson gave to me back in 1945, '46, '47. It took me 40 years to do the research and writing … but the inspiration was what I got from Dr. Woodson.
Your biography of George Washington Williams [George Washington Williams: A Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985] is my favorite book by you. Would you comment on George Washington Williams and the book?
It's my favorite too. … It was such a challenge. Here was a man who was larger than life in many ways, and yet there was nothing about him, absolutely nothing. And so I went to Dr. Woodson in 1945 and said, 'Who was this character?' I had seen his two-volume History of the Negro Race [A History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1882], and yet there was nothing on him. Not even an article. … And Dr. Woodson said, 'Look, this man is really something, he's really quite remarkable.' And I looked up DuBois, and DuBois had said, when the book came out in 1882, 'At last we have our own historian'. … And Dr. Woodson said, 'Why don't you write a paper? I'll put you on the program' [at the ASNLH annual conference], and he did. And he published it in the Journal of Negro History. By that time I was so inspired and so stimulated I could just keep going then. It just took time because there was nothing on him. … [Williams, born in Pennsylvania in 1849, served in the Civil War, attended Howard University and graduated from Newton Theological Seminary.] And he became successively a minister, state legislator, lawyer, historian, explorer extraordinaire, ladies' man … he was just remarkable.
At the Library there was no segregation, but what about other archives and libraries, particularly since you were researching Southern history?
When I left the Library of Congress in 1939, I went to North Carolina to work in the state archive in Raleigh. The director was a Yale Ph.D. in history, and he was a Southern. So I went to see him to tell him what I was doing and to see what was there. … I was not prepared for his response. He simply said, "When we built this building we had no idea that any Negroes would ever be curious enough or interested enough to want to come here to do research. So we don't have any place for you to do research, but I think that you are entitled to do it, but we'll have to prepare a place for you. How about giving me a week?"
I looked at him, I didn't respond, I simply looked at him because I was counting up … room and board that I would have to pay while sitting around twiddling my thumbs for a week to satisfy local prejudices. He saw that I was not comfortable with a week, so he said, "What about three days?"
I said, "I'll be back on Thursday." It was Monday. And I went back on Thursday and they had cleaned out a little room … and put in there a table, a desk and a waste basket. It was across the hall from the search room that the whites were using, a big search room. I was also given a key to the stacks on the assumption that white pages would not want to serve me and I would therefore have to go into the stacks and serve myself. … They also gave me a library cart. I did that for two weeks and then Dr. Crittenden—that was the name of the director—said, "I'm sorry but I'll have to relieve you of your key." …I said, "What did I do?" He said, "It's not what you did, but the white people see you coming through the search room with your cart piled high with books and manuscripts, and they are all demanding keys for themselves because they feel that they are being discriminated against, reversely."
You asked me about discrimination, you could see it all right there in Raleigh, all forms. Now here the archives made a special room for me. The state library, which is across the square, didn't have a room for blacks; you had to sit in the stacks, not in the reading room, but anywhere in the stacks. On the other side of the square was the [state] Supreme Court library, which had no discrimination. You could go in there and sit anywhere and use anything that they had. So you see the whims, and the indefiniteness of segregation is something that was remarkable.
Ms. Pyne is a network specialist in the Network Development and MARC Standards Office.