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Oklahoma Memories

John Hope Franklin

2011-02-21

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"The memory that I have of someone having shot into our house in about 1919, and I don't remember the shot or anything, but I remember them picking the buckshots out of the buttocks of our horse the next morning."

That is Dr. John Hope Franklin, one of the foremost historians of African American history in the world.

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

John Hope Franklin was born in 1915 in Rentiesville, a tiny all-black town just north of Checotah. His father, B.C. Franklin, was a lawyer; his mother an elementary school teacher. Education was a very important part of John Hope Franklin's life beginning at a very early age.

"...and she would put me in the - she was teaching elementary - and she would put me in the back of the room and give me a piece of paper and tell me to be still and be quiet, and I was. But I listened and I learned and before she knew it, I was writing. At first it was scratching on the paper then she looked and found that I was writing. I had learned to write and learned to read. I suppose I was three years old or less, I don't know, and I've been reading and writing ever since."

In 1921, just before the Tulsa Race Riot, Franklin's father moved to Tulsa and established a law practice there. After the riot, Franklin and his mother moved to Tulsa. John Hope graduated from Booker T. Washington High School with honors. He then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Fisk University, and it was there that he met his mentor, a white history professor at that all-black college.

"...but I had no reason to feel uncomfortable with Theodore Currier was his name of my professor, and I was not uncomfortable. From that point on, we ate together - not regularly, not meals regular but ate together - he took me riding, he mentored me, then he pointed me for Harvard and very deliberately said 'I want you to go to Harvard.' He saw in me some things that I should do that he hadn't done."

Franklin said he never felt any discomfort being in mixed classes. He said early in his teaching career one day after he had started his class, a young black women entered the classroom late and began looking for a seat. After a few minutes she sat next to some other black students, something that Franklin found perplexing.

"When I was in graduate school I didn't have that problem anyway, because there were no blacks in any class that I went to, and I just came in and sat myself down wherever I wanted to. I didnot understand that she got some satisfaction, some comfort, in sitting next to an African American. I say that to indicate to you that I was absolutely dumbfounded, maybe I shouldn't have been but I was."

Franklin earned his masters and PhD in history at Harvard then embarked on a distinguished career in education. He published a number of books on African American history and ultimately retired from Duke University. In Tulsa the race riot is commemorated with the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park dedicated just last month.John Hope Franklin died March 25, 2009.

"...but I have always worked hard and tried to do the best that I could, and I would let the rest take care of itself."

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