March 26th, 2009
05:40 PM ET

Shining a light – and a smile – on America

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/03/25/john.hope.franklin.obit/art.john.hope.franklin.duke.jpg caption="John Hope Franklin, a revered historian and scholar on issues of race and the South, has died."]

Dr. John White
University of Hull, England

Professor John Hope Franklin, the distinguished African-American historian who died Wednesday in Durham, North Carolina, at the grand old age of 94, will be remembered by his friends, former students and colleagues with respect, admiration and, above all, affection. A prolific scholar of Southern and African-American history, John Hope Franklin was also engaged in the struggle for civil rights and racial harmony. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and gave advice to the NAACP in the historic Brown versus Board of Education school desegregation decision.

As a young, white, British historian with a special interest in Southern history, I first met John Hope in England over 30 years ago. I came to regard him as a mentor and friend, and found his company exhilarating. Whether discoursing on his confrontations with racism (inside and outside the historical profession), his world tours, or his beloved orchids, John Hope (as he was known to his friends) was unfailingly entertaining.

A generous and attentive host at his home in Durham, he wore his learning lightly, but gracefully. A walk around the Duke campus in his company was regularly interrupted by well-wishers anxious to demonstrate their high regard for him. In print and in conversation, John Hope would recall the ugly incidents of racial discrimination he had encountered from childhood onwards – but often with a humorous coda. One example is the encounter he had with a white woman in his club in Washington, D.C., on the evening before he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. The "lady" in question asked him to get her coat from the cloakroom. A man in his hotel also handed him a set of car keys and told John Hope to collect his car. He later recounted: "I patiently explained to him that I was a guest in the hotel, and I had no idea where his automobile was. And, in any case, I was retired."

On one occasion, I went with him to a supermarket in Durham and when he reached the check-out desk, loaded with packages, offered to help carry them. He responded (loudly): "All right, boy!" There was much head-scratching and consternation among his fellow shoppers; I was convulsed with laughter.

When I showed him an essay I'd recently published about his academic career, and asked (timidly) what he thought of it, he said:"Can't nobody talk to me now, after what you wrote!" This from a man with over 130 honorary degrees.

John Hope Franklin was, among many other things, the conscience of America. I am privileged to have known and enjoyed the warm friendship of this truly great man.

Editor's Note: Dr John White is Reader Emeritus in American History at the University of Hull, England.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Race Gender & Politics
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Neo

    I wasn't aware of him until now. Thank You CNN.

    March 27, 2009 at 5:37 am |
  2. Belal

    May God Bless him

    March 26, 2009 at 11:24 pm |
  3. Larry

    Wow! A story about a rare commodity, a successful african-american.

    March 26, 2009 at 7:40 pm |
  4. Alyzabeth

    He sounds like he was a great guy. My condolences to his family and friends.

    March 26, 2009 at 6:10 pm |