In lecture, Franklin says African American history has been neglected

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

While serving as the chairman of President Bill Clinton’s initiative on race relations, historian John Hope Franklin received letters that questioned the nature and purpose of his work. Why, some asked, does slavery deserve more recognition than the hardships of European immigrants in the United States? Franklin, hailed by many scholars as the driving force of African American historical studies, shared his response with the Brown community in a lecture Tuesday in Salomon Hall, where he read his unpublished essay “An Open Letter to Jonathan Doe: Some Reflections on Racial Inequality in the United States.”

“Dear Mr. Doe,” the letter began. “I very much appreciate your recent letter in which you set forth your views on the problem of race in the United States.” Franklin went on to outline the development of the slave trade, pointing out that, unlike European immigrants, his ancestors were brought to America in “a kind of floating gulag.” His lecture was framed as a response to a hypothetical “John Doe,” a white American ignorant of the legacy of slavery in America and skeptical of the value of Clinton’s initiative.

“Much history occurs of which some historians decide to take no notice,” Franklin said.

Franklin decried the lack of monuments and memorials constructed to remind the public of slavery and its legacy. “Less than five blocks from the U.S. Capitol was one of the most notorious slave trading posts,” Franklin said.

Even worse than slavery itself, Franklin said, was the “ideology of race conceived by defenders of the slave trade” that continues to affect relations between blacks and whites today.

Some of American history’s heroes, such as Thomas Jefferson, were staunch defenders of the slave trade, and their words had “a profound influence on pro-slavery thought,” Franklin said.

Jefferson once wrote that “blacks have a strong and disagreeable odor” and that he had “never found a black man who uttered a thought above the level of plain narration.”

Even the North, Franklin said, was “loath to subscribe to the principle of equality of the races.”

Franklin’s own experience with the legacy of slavery is extensive. In 1935, Franklin was denied admission to the University of Oklahoma despite the fact that he was an Oklahoma resident with a spotless academic record.

“The only benefit I received from the taxes my father paid (to the state of Oklahoma) was a $100 refund,” he said. The check was to go toward Franklin’s education elsewhere, and he stood to lose the money if his grades dropped.

Franklin also got a view of racism from the experiences of his father, a lawyer who also had to leave Oklahoma to go to law school. Franklin’s father returned to Oklahoma despite the intense racial discrimination there because of “the importance of place in one’s life,” something Franklin said it took him years to understand. As a lawyer in Oklahoma, Franklin’s father defended black citizens against a prejudiced legislature, managing to get unfair building codes to which poor blacks could not adhere struck down and building a reputation as a superb orator.

The legacy of discrimination affects Franklin even today. Franklin, who is 89 years old, said that as recently as the past few years, he was mistaken for a valet by a white man at an upscale hotel in Oklahoma City. At a club where Franklin was throwing a party after receiving his presidential medal, a woman asked him to get her coat from the coatroom.

“These people don’t deserve my anger,” Franklin told The Herald after the lecture. “That’s why I’m still here at 89, because I don’t pay attention to them.”

While Franklin said he chooses to find incidents like these amusing, he also said they relate directly to a larger problem: the immunization of people like “John Doe” to “the experiences of a black person regardless of his station in life.” The result, Franklin said, is “a false notion of superiority” that is “hazardous to our nation’s health.”

Franklin advised African Americans to “overcome our shortcomings and make up for the derelictions we’ve experienced over the years.”

Franklin signed books outside the lecture, including copies of “From Slavery to Freedom,” a landmark study of African American history originally published in 1947 and now in its eighth edition.

Adrienne Allen ’08 found the subject of Franklin’s speech so interesting that she brought a tape recorder with her to the lecture.

“I loved the speech. … I’m sorry for people who missed it,” Allen said. She also bought a copy of “From Slavery to Freedom” to have signed.

Professor of American Civilization James Campbell, chair of the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, said the committee invited Franklin to speak to further dialogue about “the confining legacy of race in our society.”

As a young scholar, Franklin received an unsolicited fellowship from the office of Brown’s president, which helped start his academic career. Franklin was named for John Hope, a Brown professor who was his parents’ mentor, and his father was a colleague of Inman Page, a member of the Class of 1877 and Brown’s first black graduate. Franklin, who graduated from Fisk and Harvard universities, holds an honorary law degree from Brown.

“We wanted to bring him back to campus,” Campbell said.