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Oklahoma Journeys

John Hope Franklin

2011-02-19

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He was born in Rentiesville, a tiny all-black town north of Checotah. His father was a lawyer; his mother an elementary school teacher. He ultimately became the foremost historian of African American history in America, and the Tulsa Race Riot memorial is named for him. Dr. John Hope Franklin on Oklahoma Journeys this week from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

He was born in 1915 in Rentiesville, a tiny all-black town north of Checotah. John Hope Franklin's parents were well educated. His father B.C. Franklin was a lawyer; his mother was an elementary school teacher. He said that he was home schooled. As soon as he was big enough not to be carried, his mother took him to school with her. He sat in a corner of her classroom and listened and doodled, and eventually his mother realized he was actually writing and reading at the age of three. Education was important in the Franklin home.

In 1921, his father B.C. moved to Tulsa to establish a law practice there. He arrived in Tulsa the week the Tulsa Race Riot broke out. Back in home in Rentiesville, the Franklin family waited for word from B.C., and eventually they did hear from him. He survived the riot, opened his practice and bought a home. The Franklin family moved to Tulsa. John Hope Franklin graduated from Booker T. Washington High School then moved to Nashville to attend Fisk University. It was there that his history professor mentored him and encouraged him to go to Harvard for his graduate work.

John Hope Franklin earned both his master's degree and doctorate at Harvard. Franklin later said that there were no blacks in graduate school at Harvard, something that didn't bother him at all. One incident early in his teaching career stood out in his mind. One day after he had started a class, a young black woman walked in late; she searched the room for a seat, of which there were plenty, but eventually she chose to sit with some other black students. Franklin found that perplexing. He said when he was in graduate school, he just walked into a classroom and sat wherever he wanted.

In the early 1950s he served on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Team with a young black attorney, Thurgood Marshall, and together they put together the arguments that Marshall used in the Brown vs. Board of Education discrimination case. Franklin's career took him to a number of colleges and universities, eventually to Duke University where he was named James B. Duke Professor of History and at the same time was a professor of legal history in the Duke University Law School.

In 2005, at the age of 90, Franklin published and lectured on his new autobiography, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. In 2008, he made his last trip to Oklahoma and spent the better part of a day at the Oklahoma History Center speaking to student groups from around the state.Dr. John Hope Franklin died on March 25, 2009.

You can learn more about Dr. John Hope Franklin and the history of African Americans in the territory and the state of Oklahoma in the exhibit Realizing the Dreamat the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rd Street just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.