(Re)Making History

Book cover
Mirror to Americaby John Hope FranklinFarrar, Straus & Giroux. 381p $25

In his 90th year, the indefatigable historian John Hope Franklin has written his life story. More than any other scholar, Franklin has made African-American history an essential part of American history. Whereas his predecessors W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson created brilliant careers toiling at segregated schools or in civil rights activism, Franklin became an important first African-American in several major American universities, and a leader of historical associations.


In an academic career that has spanned seven decades, Franklin has published innumerable path-breaking books. His name is well known to generations of college students and history buffs for his sterling textbook of African-American history, From Slavery to Freedom, first published by Knopf in 1947 and now in its eighth edition.

In this lively, well-written book, he surveys a life of accomplishment marred by sad turning points and by the infuriating sting of racism. The first chapters of Mirror to America offer a powerful glimpse of a strong African-American family living amid racial cruelty. Born in the remote Oklahoma town of Rentiesville in 1915, Franklin was the second son of Buck Colbert Franklin, a black Oklahoma lawyerwhose own story was edited by his son and grandson for publication in 1997and Mollie Parker Franklin, a schoolteacher and seamstress.

His parents emphasized education to Franklin and his siblings. The author’s retelling of his childhood illuminates the richness of black American life. In Tulsa, where his father practiced law and to which Franklin relocated in his teens, Franklin experienced the sharp pains of racism. The Lyric Opera Company of Chicago toured the South after its regular season. Franklin, already a keen follower of opera, longed to go. His parents, however, refused to attend because of the auditorium’s segregated seating policy, so Franklin went alone. Seventy years later, he cannot hear La Traviata without recalling such humiliating experiences.

From Oklahoma, the precocious scholar went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. There he encountered other children of the black American elite and met his future wife, Aurelia Whittington. Evocative passages inform readers about career-building among his black peers, who could not foresee the racial reopening of American society that would take place decades later. He learned that the petty restrictions of Jim Crow laws could prove fatal when a prominent, popular female college administrator, injured in a car crash, was denied admission to the local tax-supported hospital. Receiving inadequate care, she died tragically. Franklin adds to this searing anecdote the fact that 20 blacks had been lynched in the South the preceding year; and that just before the woman’s death there occurred the disgraceful Scottsboro Incident, in which the questionable testimony of two white women helped railroad nine teenage boys to death penalties. The self-esteem instilled in Franklin by his parents enabled the collegian to rise above such dismal events; and, with the influence and guidance of a white professor, Franklin went on to graduate studies in history at Harvard.

Franklin’s portraits of university life at Fisk and Harvard are worth the price of the book alone. While he reveled in the wondrous scholarly work in Cambridge, the faculty’s smug racism and casual anti-Semitism appalled him. He had to wash dishes to get through. He earned a Ph.D. in history in 1939, became a published author a few years later and started his teaching career in black schools around the South. Armed with his Harvard degree, he became an invited guest professor at several white schools before settling for a time at Howard University. Always honest about human failings, Franklin provides a telling anecdote about how Du Bois snubbed him until he learned that Franklin had a Harvard diploma. Later, Du Bois and he worked together regularly.

Franklin’s hard work and steady stream of publications won him recognition in the academic world. His appointment to head the history department at Brooklyn College was front-page news in February 1956. Still, Franklin and his family learned that racial covenants in Brooklyn made buying a house near campus a frustrating endeavor. His reputation and visibility now soaring, Franklin made a second major move years laterto chair the history department at the University of Chicago. Now, he could mentor a series of outstanding graduate students as well as teach and be an administrator.

Readers might not find such ascension remarkable for a white male, but Franklin’s achievement is that he pushed the door wide open for future African-American professors. His firm, polished, assertive demeanor, coupled with superb scholarship, served him well in the early days of integration. Now a pillar of the academic establishment, Franklin began collecting prestigious grants and professorships, serving on presidential commissions and building a sturdy shelf of publications.

Racial discrimination, though, remained an unpleasant companion for Franklin. His sharp sensitivity to complacent racism made him rail, for example, at the condescending language the famous Yale historian C. Vann Woodward used to describe his scholarship. Woodward’s professed bewilderment at Franklin’s reaction made the latter realize that the white Yale professor and he viewed the world through different lenses. If Woodward hailed the Civil Rights Act of 1965 as a signal victory, Franklin regarded it as a mere tenuous toehold that could slip away at any moment. The reader may decide which man was right. For Woodward, honors would arrive up to the day of his death. Franklin’s steady stream of achievements and recognition more than matched his colleague’s. But it is inconceivable to me that Woodward would be mistakenly ordered at the age of 80an indignity Franklin suffered, as he recounts in the book’s introductionto hang up another white man’s coat in a Washington, D.C., club of which he was a member.

Though such public events take up much of the latter part of Franklin’s autobiography, his private life is honestly described. Family deaths and his beloved wife’s brave bout with Alzheimer’s disease are discussed openly. Mirror to America is a profound story, with meaning for American culture far beyond its academic context. I expect that sections on black family life and school will become classic portrayals.

This book makes clear where America fails, while offering a testament to what America can be.

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