Thank You John Hope Franklin

The most recent issue of The Journal of Southern History (November 2005) contains the presentations from a roundtable discussion that took place at last year’s Southern Historical Association (SHA) convention in Memphis, Tennessee. Duke University Emeritus Professor John Hope Franklin was one of the participants. The panel discussion commemorated the 50th anniversary of the association’s meeting in that same city and a panel that focused on the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court. Franklin, who worked on the historical background of the Brown case was asked to take part. Although he served on the SHA’s planning committee for that year, Franklin refused to take part as the Peabody Hotel would not allow black historians to book reservations. In a letter written shortly before the meeting was set to take place, Franklin explained: “There are times when one gets weary of inconveniences and risks of humiliation; and in order to retain one’s sanity and self-respect he must have periods of time in which he unrealistically insulates himself from such experiences.” Beyond problems related to travel arrangements, Franklin was also weary of the negative reception that he was bound to receive by many fellow academics.

Here is a bit more from Franklin’s 2004 speech, which provides insight into his decision not to attend the meeting in Memphis.

“There were two anticipated experiences, however, that greatly influenced my state of mind, even as I discharged my duties as a member of the program committee of the Southern Historical Association, which, by that time, some African American historians were calling the Confederate Historical Association. In the summer of 1955, I was invited to spend a portion of that summer at a conference in Braunschweig, Germany, to offer assistance in the rewriting of the textbooks that had been used in the German schools to make certain now that there was no longer a taint of Nazism in anything the young poeople would be studying. As I went through that exercise I could not help wondering: if young southerners had earlier been exposed to books that emphasized the common humanity of all people of the South, perhaps the problems that we confronted in 1955 would not exist.

The other experience was also a European experience. I had been invited to read a paper before the International Congress of Historical Sciences meeting in Rome in September 1955. The Americans I met there were not concerned with such trivia as where I would stand when I read that paper and whether I would eat at a sidewalk restaurant or have my meals in my hotel room. Instead, some of the historians were more interested in my joining their department as their chairman than how I would act when we had our audience with the Pope. It gave me the perspective that I needed to remain firm in my resolve not to go to Memphis, although, at that time, I was drooling to see and hear William Faulkner.”

You can read much more about Franklin’s life and distinguished academic career in his new autobiography, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin.

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