DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
When you enter the home of historian John Hope Franklin and sit down to talk with him, you want to do one thing and one thing only: listen.
Dr. JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN (Historian): I consider myself as a historian of the United States. And when I write about black America, I write it as a corrective of the distortions of United States history.
ELLIOTT: Franklin lives in a tranquil wooded neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina. The feint scent of orchids welcomes you to his living room. There's a greenhouse out back full of them, and pots of several orchid varieties are scattered on tables, along with all the honors he's collected over the years. John Hope Franklin, now 90 years old, has written his autobiography, "Mirror to America." I asked him to read from the introduction.
Dr. FRANKLIN: (Reading) `Living in a world restricted by laws defining race as well as creating obstacles, disadvantages and even superstitions regarding race challenged my capacities for survival. For 90 years, I have witnessed countless men and women likewise meet this challenge. Some bested it; some did not. I became a student and eventually a scholar, and it was armed with the tools of scholarship that I strove to dismantle those laws, level those obstacles and disadvantages and replace superstitions with humane dignity.'
ELLIOTT: You know, I'm curious. As you were writing this memoir, was it difficult, because as a historian, you're used to looking at others, investigating other people in an objective way? Yet now you're telling your own personal story. How is that different?
Dr. FRANKLIN: Not terribly different. I did not keep records myself, and, therefore, I had to rely on doing research of my own life and trying to remember and trying to explain to myself how I survived all this. And I survived it because I could look at it somewhat objectively, even when I was involved. And that arose from an experience which I had when I was very small, when we were put off a train and the conductor put us off out in the country. And I was crying, and my mother said, `What are you crying about?' I said, `The man put us off the train.' She said, `Oh, that? That shouldn't disturb you. He put you off the train because we were sitting where white people were supposed to sit and not where blacks were supposed to sit in a condition of humiliation. And so he put us off the train.' She said, `But don't you fret about that. Don't you ever worry about that. You must spend your energy and time, if you have it, to prove to that man and to every other white person that you're as good as they are. And if you do that, you won't be crying. You'll be defying.' And I kept that in my mind from the time I was six until today, and I believe that that's what has sustained me through the years.
ELLIOTT: When you first started to do your research, you did a lot of it in the South. And I'd like you to take me back to what it was like, as a young black scholar, going into some of these archives and libraries trying to get your information?
Dr. FRANKLIN: Well, when I first came to North Carolina in 1939 to do research in the state Department of Archives and History in Raleigh, North Carolina, the head of the archives told me that although he could conceive of a black person doing research there, that when they designed the building, they had not thought of that, and, therefore, there was no place for a black person to do research and that--and the other fact that he was willing to hand me the research, I never thought this would have to wait until he could prepare a place for me.
ELLIOTT: Where did they end up putting you?
Dr. FRANKLIN: They put me in a small room slightly larger than a closet and put a table and a chair and a wastebasket in there. That's the way I worked for the next year or so. Then I come to Alabama, and I crossed the threshold into the state Department of Archives and History, and I don't know what they're going to do with me there. And so I go in. I tell the attendant, an older white woman, what I want. She goes and gets the material for me and hands it to me. And I'm standing there in the middle of the floor; I don't know what to do. You know, I look over in that corner, and I--well, there's white people sitting over there. I don't think that's where I have to sit. I look over in another corner, and that's where nobody's sitting, so I go over there. I'm going to segregate myself, I suppose you'd say.
When I start over to that corner, the woman says, `You can't sit there.' I said, `Well, why didn't you tell me that?' That's what I said to myself. She said, `You have to sit over here where the other people are sitting because that's the coolest place in the room. And, by the way, they need to meet you anyway.' And she stopped everyone who was doing research over there and introduced me around to them. She said, `Now you sit here with the others, and it's a nice place for you to be.' So I've run the gamut, and I wondered then, `What in the world--why don't they make up their minds? What is good for whites, and what is good for blacks, and what is not good for blacks?' It's all confused. I would say to myself, `The white man cannot make up his mind what he wants to do with blacks.'
ELLIOTT: (Chuckles) So, Dr. Franklin, when you were researching in these archives in the Jim Crow South, the work you were actually doing was about to expose sort of the system that was going on there. Was that sort of a powerful way to be thinking as you sat there...
Dr. FRANKLIN: Well, I wasn't trying to expose a system. I was trying to understand it. And so I was working on military schools--doing history of military schools in the South. I was working on patrols in the South, trying to understand the system of control, which they had over all people, not merely slaves. So that's what I was trying to do. And I published a book in 1956 called "The Militant South," and it had nothing to do with blacks. It wasn't a book about slavery. It wasn't a book about free blacks. It was a book about white people.
ELLIOTT: Not only have you written textbooks, written histories, been a lecturer, been a teacher, but there's always been an almost public service component of what you do. One of the most fascinating parts of the book, for me, was when you talked about your work in the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education...
Dr. FRANKLIN: Right.
ELLIOTT: ...desegregation ruling. You were actually helping Thurgood Marshall at the time, who was an attorney with the NAACP. You were helping him prepare his legal briefs...
Dr. FRANKLIN: Yes.
ELLIOTT: ...for that case.
Dr. FRANKLIN: Yes. Thurgood Marshall called me because he knew me, and I'd worked with him before. He called me and said, `Look, what are you doing this summer?' I said, `Well, I'm going back to Howard University.' I was teaching at Cornell University in the spring and in the summer. He says, `You know what else you're going to be doing?' I said, `No.' He said, `You're going to be working for me.' And he said, `And if you don't work for me, if you don't agree to work for me, I pity what's going to happen to you.' Man, he was always like that. And so I agreed to help him answer the questions which had been propounded by the United States Supreme Court. And it was: What was the intent of the framers of the 14th Amendment with regard to the whole question of segregation? What was the intent of the people who ratified the 14th Amendment with respect to segregation in the schools?
ELLIOTT: The 14th Amendment being the equal protection amendment of the Constitution.
Dr. FRANKLIN: Right. And so I did research, I wrote papers, I provided bibliography. And that way we gave them a sense of understanding, a sense of knowing that made it possible for him to argue the case with ease, to take on the other attorneys with confidence. I think that's what we did for them.
ELLIOTT: Do you remember where you were when you found out...
Dr. FRANKLIN: Yes.
ELLIOTT: ...what the court had ruled?
Dr. FRANKLIN: Yes. I remember so well where I was. I was in my office at Howard University, and my wife called me and said, `Have you heard?' I said, `Heard what?' She said, `Decision in the Brown case.' I said, `No.' And then she told me. And then she told me it was unanimous, at which time I think I let out some kind of shriek. And it was dancing in the streets after that.
ELLIOTT: What did you think that moment meant in US history?
Dr. FRANKLIN: I thought it reversed the course of history in the sense that it ended segregation in the public schools. And I was naive enough to believe that the law-abiding citizens of the United States would accept that as doctrine. I did not know that at the time we were celebrating the victory, there were those who were meeting all night, I suppose, planning and plotting how to avoid its enforcement.
ELLIOTT: Is there some disillusionment when you look back on that moment and the potential that it had and where we are today, when you look at public schools and who attends what schools?
Dr. FRANKLIN: It's appalling when you recognize the fact that what we had hoped for in terms of desegregation was not realized and that there's been a steady, vigorous, industrious effort to push the clock back, so to speak, and to re-segregate our schools. And it's very disheartening.
ELLIOTT: Why can't we get past that? Why is race still an issue today?
Dr. FRANKLIN: Well, one of the reasons why we have difficulty in getting past it is that we were so thorough and so serious in the building of a body of thought and a set of practices relating to slavery, the justifications for slavery, you know, as a body of thought as thick as the Bible about what Negroes are and what they can be and what they cannot be. If you read Thomas Jefferson, his notes on Virginia, in which he describes at great length how blacks smell, how they have no capacity for imagination, how they don't have the ability even to engage in the process of thinking--now if you get that from the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, then you've got a problem on your hands of digging it out and of ferreting it out and dealing with it. And it hasn't been dealt with on any kind of adequate basis.
ELLIOTT: Dr. Franklin, there are those who say talking about the past and the problems of the past has not gotten us anywhere, has not solved this problem. This is an argument I heard a lot covering some of these old civil rights trials in the South. You know, `Oh, this happened 40 years ago. You can't get justice now. We don't need to bring this up again. This is just going to cause more trouble for us.' You know, how do you answer those people who say, `This is not good for society'?
Dr. FRANKLIN: I would certainly vigorously disagree. We have to confront history. We have to face it down to be certain that it won't haunt us again. We have to be certain that the present is not a pawn of the past and that the past is a root by which we learn how we ought to go in the future.
ELLIOTT: You're 90 years old now, and you've been working at this, talking about some of this country's ugly past, quite frankly, for most of your career. One of the people that you held up as somebody that you admired was W.E.B. DuBois, the black scholar. And when he was 90, he was in a really bad place. He was disillusioned...
Dr. FRANKLIN: Yeah.
ELLIOTT: ...with the place where he'd gotten to based on what he'd learned and uncovered about this country. How do you sit here today at 90?
Dr. FRANKLIN: Well, I don't sit here as Dr. DuBois did because he went packing shortly after that, and he left the country and died abroad, having renounced his citizenship and so forth. No, I don't think that's the way to go, and I'm not about to leave this country. I'm not about to give up on it.
ELLIOTT: Quite frankly, I find that an amazing spirit, given what I've read in your book and the things that you've gone through, from being a six-year-old kid kicked off a train for not sitting in the black section to here--In your 80s, was it?--a woman at a private club in Washington, DC, treats you as if you're the bellhop and not a member of that club, which you were. I mean, you seem to have an amazing spirit, given what you've gone through.
Dr. FRANKLIN: Well, I know something that they don't know (laughs).
ELLIOTT: What's that?
Dr. FRANKLIN: That I'm as good as they are (laughs). And that stands me in good stead. And I know something, too, that they don't know apparently: that little by little, chip by chip, you can change things. If Michelangelo can make David out of a piece of marble, we might be able to make civilized human beings out of this vast quantity of human existence that we have before us. And I'm willing to keep on trying.
ELLIOTT: Dr. John Hope Franklin's new autobiography is "Mirror to America."
Thanks for speaking with us today.
Dr. FRANKLIN: My pleasure.
ELLIOTT: Our interview with John Hope Franklin was produced by Tina Tennesen and made possible with the generous help of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. To hear more of our conversation with Dr. Franklin, visit our Web site at npr.org.
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.