August 2006 Interview: Dr. John Hope Franklin

Download Part One (Intro) in mp3 format
Download Part Two (Are We There Yet?) in mp3 format
Download Part Three (The Black Youth) in mp3 format
Download Part Four (Durham) in mp3 format

Dr. John Hope Franklin: The north is not much better than the south, believe me. I could write a book, as I said in here I could write a book on trying to get a house in New York City.

Pierce Freelon: Yeah, when you were first at Brooklyn College.

Dr. Franklin: That appointment was so spectacular, you can’t imagine it. But you know, they never had anything like that before you know I’m some kind of.. should have been in a museum or something, you know? People come by and look at me. My picture was on the front page of the New York Times. Absolutely front page. But when I went to buy a house, I couldn’t. Nobody would show me a house…

John Hope Franklin graduated from Fisk University in 1935 and earned his PhD in history from Harvard University in 1941. He has taught at a number of HBCUs, including Fisk University, St. Augustine’s College, North Carolina Central University, and Howard University. In 1956 he went to Brooklyn College as Chairman of the Department of History – the first African American to sit as the chair of a department at a white institution. John Hope Franklin has served as the president of every major Historical association, has received honorary degrees from over 100 universities, and holds the presidential Medal of Freedom for his service in dozens of national commissions and delegations. The author of several books, including from Slavery to Freedom which has sold like, 3 million copies, Dr. Franklin’s most recent publication is his own autobiography, Mirror to America. He currently lives in Durham, North Carolina – Bull City – where he is Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University… he lives right up the street from me and my brother, so let’s get to the interview.

Are We There Yet?

Dr. Franklin: I wish we were father along that we are in 2006, we’re not there yet.

Pierce: Do you have any ideas about why we’re not there or the things that we as young people, the emerging…

Dr. Franklin: I know why we’re not there, we’re not there because this country has never yet faced up to the awful insanity and sinfulness of slavery. And how they tried to shape their whole culture was shaped around that. And they persisted in it and they persist until about now. This takes a long time and it takes a willingness on the part of them which they’re not willing in 2006 to confess up and say this was terrible.. terrible.. and so we got to stumble along, that’s why we’re not there.

Pierce: As scholars trying to initiate change and to kind of break down some of those barriers that you identified as being a result of America not facing the atrocities of slavery, what can we do as scholars? And one of the things we’ve done is create this website so we can start a dialogue and kind of identify some of the questions and identify some of the tactics that we can take, just regular people can take to initiate change. Because the high school drop out rate right now, just high school is hovering around %50 for black men. It’s a little bit lower for black women. Not only at the high school level but a lot of brothers and sisters aren’t finishing college either. So what are some of the things that we can do to..

Dr. Franklin: Well, that keeps me awake nights.. I don’t know. First we can be steadfast in our commitment to scholarship, to leadership. Secondly we must maintain the very highest standards in all we do, so that we can not only compete with but lead in the area where we’re working. Try to be number one, you know what I mean? So that the impression that you make is an impression of striving to perfection. And that you must be clear and unequivocal in your own standards. You must be as nearly perfect as you can be and no compromise, no compromises. No compromise for mediocrity to be sure but no compromise for anything less than perfection as much as you can achieve. And this also means that you set the standards. I’ll come back to you about the Hip-Hop thing. I don’t know what the standards are in that area and I don’t even understand it frankly, I wish I did.

Pierce: Well, we could talk about it.. (laughter)

Dr. Franklin: I’m going to sit at your feet. I just wanted to be certain that the impression that I have is incorrect. That Hip-Hop doesn’t do justice to women and that it tolerates a laxity in morals and so fourth that I would not tolerate myself. I may be wrong but the stuff I’ve heard it makes me.. nervious. But back to the question you raised I hope that gives you some notion of just high standards. And don’t- we mustn’t be too sensitive about and mustn’t be defensive about what we think and what we do. We can’t be, if we believe that we have high standards we can’t be apologetic for it. Just hold the standards high- this is where I stand. I believe in perfection. Your daddy certainly believes in perfection. I do. I won’t compromise I won’t settle for less than the best and I hope that’s perfect but probably not, but I won’t settle for less than that not a penny less than the best. And I believe that will stand up against anybody or with anybody. If it doesn’t well, I died trying. Couldn’t change a thing.

The Black Youth

Pierce: So if you have anything you want to share with us then please, by all means.

Deen Freelon: Or with the youth at large I guess as this will be reaching a large audience. We’ll be putting this file up on the Internet where people will be able to download it and check it out and they’ll also be able to read it in transcript and so it reaches a much broader audience, hopefully- than just us.

Dr. Franklin: Blackademics, huh? What do you think we can do with respect to this other high more young people who drop out of school? Who have standards of conduct which make it easy for them to think that its not fair.

Pierce: Well, I have a really good example. And there was a guy that lived across from my house, a young man named Brandon he was fourteen years old, and he

Dr. Franklin: Was he black?

Pierce: Yeah, black guy. And he was struggling through middle school. He got sent to some correctional school or something like that, around Durham, when I met him. Now he’s a freshman at Southern at sixteen. So he’s really kind of fallen behind and I’ve tried..

Dr. Franklin: Oh, Southern high school?

Pierce: Yeah, Southern high school.

Dr. Franklin: Oh, I thought you meant Southern University.

Pierce: Yes Southern High School right here in Durham. And he really doesn’t have a lot of positive male role models in his life. His brother is a two time felon he’s actually kind of into some bad stuff. He got shot running around with some of his boys in Durham and he came to me without coming to his mother. Really somebody that never considered college an option. And what I tried to do with him was take him under my wing. From a mentorship standpoint and it really, I really think it made a difference. There was one point when his mother called me because he got suspended from school and the three of us sat down together and wrote a letter articulating his goals and his aspirations to go to college and actually to perform well, he was just having problems with some of the administration there. He submitted the letter to the principal and he’s really been kinda doing well since then. So I think to answer your question it really takes grassroots attention to individuals because that’s really what resonates with them is somebody that they can see..

Dr. Franklin: We don’t have enough people like you to go around. You know, that would take the time. There might be a lot of people like you but I just don’t know whether we can say that there are enough people that can take the time to turn this thing around. You gotta get more and more one on one maybe, to do it. Because I think that the schools are probably more important than the homes. We know that there are a a lot of people who have dysfunctional homes that come out to go on to something. So I know if you have a decent home that’s the best route, but there’s so many of those go into a situation where you can’t do much about that. Their daddy’s gone and their mothers, you know. And so you have to think of some other kind of way. And it can’t be one on one cause it’s not enough. So I think schools and school institutions – institutions built by the schools or created by the schools or some community organization is the way to go.

Deen: I think that on some level role models are extremely important and not just people that you see on a TV screen or hear on the radio but people that are actually in the community that I think, even if you don’t have direct one on one contact even if there’s not a one on one correspondence between the individuals and the people that they assist. I think that also seeing that possibility for young people is very important because one of the things that I’ve found is going out into the community and talking to some people that don’t have a lot of economic means is that they see, when they look out into the media and they try to think about what they’re going to do after high school or you know if they drop out of high school then their plan is to either become a basketball star or a rapper or you know even worse, a drug dealer. So I think one of the things that’s crucially important is to show I think particularly for black males because they’re not doing quite as well as their female counterparts in business and in college and things like that. I think that for them to be able to see that there are viable options out there for them that aren’t in the entertainment industry and for them to realize that for every person who makes it there are thousands if not tens of thousands that don’t. For them to realize that there are more viable areas that we can make contributions in…

Dr. Franklin: How can they realize that, if they want to be either rock stars or athletes and they don’t realize what you just said. That there are only very few of them that make it.

Deen: Yeah, that’s why I think that there need people in the community because I feel like it must be that there’s not enough or that they’re not seeing that (visible) or they don’t think that that is something that they can do. Because the people that I’ve talked to, granted it hasn’t been any sort of scientific survey, but some of the impressions that I’ve gotten is that these possibilities haven’t even crossed their minds. They don’t even think about it. What they are going for is…

Dr. Franklin: They think that these are easy routes, too. It’s difficult. If you’re going to be a musician, if you’re going to be a athlete its not an easy road at all. There are a lot of other roads that could be very successful that are even easier, much easier.

Deen: I think it’s difficult, because people see where they are at the moment, and then they see the goal but it’s like they don’t see what goes into that (the process) the process is not there. And that’s why you hear a lot of people talking about their dreams and that’s another thing that i think comes up people talk about what they want to do, talk about the (end result, yea) end product. But they don’t really give too much thought to really getting in and focusing on processes that are gonna get them there. So I think that that is another role that some of these role models could take on is to help bridge that gap between the position that they are in at present and where they want to go and fostering those types of behaviors and those types of you know, habits…

Dr. Franklin: One of the reactions as I understand is, “well, you’re trying to make me a white person” if you want to go into business or one of those areas that you mentioned, “that’s for whites” What do you answer when they say that?

Deen: It’s funny, right when you and I first met I was going through that I was in seventh grade and I was in the TIP talent identification program thing and I was going through that at that time and for me it’s kind of weird…

Dr. Franklin: He didn’t even want to have his picture taken with me. (laughter)

Deen: Do you really remember that?

Dr. Franklin: I do. Do you remember that? It’s easy for me to remember, I’m grown.

Deen: My thing was, I think at the time I was a disaffected youth for precisely that reason, the fact that I was not getting recognition from my peers for doing what my parents had taught me was the right thing to do. And here I am for the first time in my life being vilified for that. And that was a shock to me in elementary school, I came up it was probably mostly white (E.K. Powe, yeah) and you know I didn’t take a lot of flack for excelling academically or whatever, and then I end up in mostly black Shepard middle school and its like a whole new ball game. It’s like if you’re not down if you’re not eschewing the academics, then you’re white or you’re not being true to your race or you’re not cool or whatever and I just didn’t let that affect me I just kept plugging along or doing whatever I had to do.

Dr. Franklin: You don’t think that’s because of the kind of home you came out of?

Deen: Oh no, I absolutely do think that I absolutely do believe that. I think that that gave me the strength to go on and not to be susceptible to peer pressure but I think what happens is when people aren’t inculcated with those values peer pressure does take over and those other influences from outside the home that don’t have the best interests of the influenced…

Dr. Franklin: What worries me, and I didn’t worry about you i thought you’d come out alright but what about these kids that don’t come homes that you come from. I just don’t know how you don’t reach them.

Pierce: Well, one thing professor Darity. You know William Darity over at Carolina?

Dr. Franklin: Sandy, we call him.

Pierce: Yeah Sandy. Sandy’s son actually is in a Hip-Hop group with me, we’re Language Arts. So, Sandy wrote a paper talking about that and talking about how…

Dr. Franklin: You mean the father, Sandy?

Pierce: Yeah, Sandy the father, William Sr. about how that’s across cultures. White students also have to grow up where the smart kids is called the dork and the kids that excel academically are called nerds. But for some reason it doesn’t have the same grip on them on a mass scale, so I wonder…

Dr. Franklin: They belong to a dominant group and the standard of the dominant group is that, and so the people who resent or object to that, they are in the minority, clearly in the minority. You know, the bankers are white.

Deen: I don’t know it kinda seems to me that there’s something about the celebration of certain situations that we were forced into and I’m sure you know a lot more about this than I do, but because we were held down by the codification of racism and slavery prior to that. Now it’s kind of like we celebrate that because its one of the only things that we have to hold onto, so. You know you’ve got the celebration of all things ghetto and Hip-Hop and you’ve got the idea that anything that aspires to intellectualism or seems to be quote unquote putting on heirs is not black. Really what you’re talking about is an economic reality rather than an inherent racial one.

Pierce: Well, here’s a question for Dr. Franklin. I’m not sure if that was always the case because in my study of the history, back in the day, the teachers and the preachers were the ones that were looked up to and seizing that education was the best thing you could do, it was really encouraged at one point.

Dr. Franklin: That was certainly true in my day. And even for the kids who were not going to be preachers or teachers, they didn’t resort to some sort of unconventional kind of conduct or activity. They didn’t know where to go or what to do, but they weren’t bent on doing something that was not a credit to the group, you see. It’s very interesting I look back at my high school days that was 70 years ago that I graduated from college from high school 75 years ago. And I don’t remember, even those who were not going to get a chance to go to college or even those who did not have clearly in mind some sort of white collar job or respectable job. They didn’t have this other determination to go underground, or to have some sort of counter culture that was different and that would give them a sense of security…


Pierce: One of the big things I wanted to ask about just personally is, you talk about Durham. I was born and raised in Durham and you talk about Durham back in the day how Black Wallstreet with NC Mutual and all the banks and investment areas and stuff like that, so I was wondering if you could, just for a little bit talk about Durham and how it used to be and how its changed and how we can try to claim some of that.. and learn from that.

Dr. Franklin: The thing about Durham is, Durham started out with a lot of advantages which other communities did not have. In the first place there were not any- the racial tensions were sort of minimal. The racial divide was sort of minimal. I have tried to understand why that was so. I think it was so because you always had here a fairly significant, a substantial number of educated black people. Professionals, semi-professionals or people who had resources. What’s the name of the man who was the head of Mutual, who founded the Mutual… *(that was umm, Merrick). Merrick might not have been very accomplished- he was a barber but he had resources and he was very intelligent, obviously. And when he did combine his talents with Dr. Moore who was educated, you see. And together they founded the Mutual. Meanwhile for various reasons, some of which I think might be under the table, they got along with whites. And rumor has it that whites had family connections in the black community. And they wanted their offspring or whoever they were, they waned them to be respectable and rise in the scale of things. And so they tolerated blacks, encouraged blacks to go on, it’s a very interesting kind of twist you get, it’s different from what you get in many other communities. And so you didn’t have any serious racial strain. You didn’t have, like Wilmington, you know violence in Wilmington, or like a there’s a few other place I could mention -Atlanta, riot, my hometown (Tulsa) riot, all over, Springfield Illinois, riot, you see. And they just went peacefully on, so you’ve got what you’ve got now. Its not an accident that the largest insurance company for blacks is in the world (NC Mutual) is here. Its not an accident that this big bank with branches over the state is here or that North Carolina Central is here. When I came here in 1939 to do research, obviously I couldn’t register at the University but all the sort of the amenities, the kindness they extended to me at Duke, in 1939. They didn’t seem to be upset that I was there. I did research right there in the same room as everybody else. Over here in Raleigh they Jim Crowed me. Here (Durham) they did not. They said go on you know, go on and do what you want to do. And it was interesting, now I don’t want to paint this too rosy, because it wasn’t rosy. The time came to eat, I didn’t know where I as gonna eat. I try to remember what I did about going to the toilet when I was there maybe I didn’t have to go as often as I do now, maybe it wasn’t a problem, but I don’t remember it being a problem. But that didn’t mean that we could do things like we wanted to do in 1939 or 40 when we couldn’t have a meeting, we couldn’t meet together except in a classroom in Central, you see. There were limits my point is there were limits even to the so called good relations. you know about the so-called secret game? *(Yes, between central and duke)

Pierce: Oh, the basketball game yeah, were you around during that?

Dr. Franklin: I was here, but I didn’t know about it.

Pierce: It was a secret.

Dr. Franklin: It was a secret I did not know about it until my friend Scott Elsworth wrote a story…

Leave a Reply