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John Hope Franklin with son, John Wittington Frankling, in 1953 (Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)
- Black teachers of the yesteryears empowered their black students to be the best.
- Education is a part of that grounding of our ancestors
- Education is just as important as its always been.
- Wherever our young people are, it’s our responsibility to share as much knowledge as we can with them — whether they’re our children or not.
Published 09/05/2019 | Reading Time 8 min 41 sec
By Nehemiah D. Frank
There are a few times in my life when I am so fortunate to meet a person who I would consider an American titan, a great personage who simultaneously embodies strength and great intellect — an individual who has contributed significantly to the African American community and this country.
I consider John Whittington Franklin, a man of that stature; although, I am quite sure he would think otherwise because he is the son of John Hope Franklin. And if you are obsessed with African American history, as am I, you would know that John Hope Franklin is the world-renowned scholar who chronicled From Slavery to Freedom. Nevertheless, for nearly thirty years, Mr. W. Franklin worked on African American, African, and African Diaspora programs at the Smithsonian. Initially, he served as researcher and French language interpreter for the Smithsonian African Diaspora program of the 1976 Bicentennial Folklife Festival while living and teaching English in Dakar, Senegal.
Truthfully, I am always a little nervous in Mr. W. Franklin’s presence, not because he is an intimidating man, but because I hold him in like regard to his father and therefore have the utmost respect for him.
The last time I met with Mr. W. Franklin was at dinner after the John Hope Franklin 2019 Symposium. A personal friend had invited me to have dinner with this prominent African American man of distinction and his honorable guest, Mr. Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. a descendant of both Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. I was nearly starstruck, having had the privilege of sitting next to Mr. Morris. Everyone at the dinner table had a story to share. I shared with Mr. Morris how the first time I had every shed tears into the pages of a book was when I read Up From Slavery, a book written by his great, great grandfather Booker T. Washington. I specifically shared an excerpt about how Mr. Washington described his enamoredness to a young black man who had traveled from several towns over to read the newspaper to a crowd of an illiterate, newly-emancipated people. I could visibly see the warmth and gratitude that Mr. Morris had for his beloved ancestor. That night was like a dream, and I’ll never forget it.
Everyone at the dinner table lived lives that fascinatingly met at the intersection of education. I am an educator, and so is Mr. Morris, Mr. W. Franklin, and Mr. Dickenson.
In August of 2019, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. W. Franklin, and similarly to dining with Mr. Morris, sitting with Mr. W. Franklin and his lovely wife would be an honor that I would also never forget.
[(from left to right) Nehemiah Frank, Alicia Latimer, Kenneth B. Morris, Karen Roberts Franklin, and John W. Franklin]
Like the opening of a good book, being read for the first time, John Wittington Franklin shared with me narratives of his personal experiences as an educator and historian.
I began our interview asking Mr. W. Franklin regarding the excitement around the naming of a school in honor of his late father — the great John Hope Franklin.
“It’s a very exciting moment. It’s recognition by his hometown — which was always important to my father,” he passionately expressed.
John Hope Franklin was a black man, born into a color-conscious world. As Mr. H. Franklin actively played a role in Mr. W. Franklin’s upbringing, Mr. H. Franklin’s father Buck Franklin also shaped his father’s life, having legally defended the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a progrom of the city’s black residents. Mr. Franklin went on to become a world-renowned historian and was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 by President William Clinton.
September 29, 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to John Hope Franklin
Mr. W. Franklin continued, “When you name a school for someone like John Hope Franklin, you take responsibility of knowing his work and knowing his interest in this community and its future — not just its past but its future.
He came here from Rentiesville [Oklahoma] right after, as the city was rebuilding in 1925. And he has had his mother as his teacher from the beginning, and he moved here [Tulsa, Oklahoma] and went into 7th grade at Booker T. Washington. And I had just been reading his impression of the school and his teachers. He was very impressed by Principal Woods. I understand that he’s [Mr. Ellis Walker Woods] being honored with a memorial on Friday. He was dad’s principal, and he talked about the excellence and how the principal inspired all of them to do more to be better and assumed that they would all go on to college and treated them as such. Now during segregation, some of our best and brightest were in the school system. They had no other choices for employment. So, they excelled, and they wanted their students to be the best. It’s not just in Tulsa. I was reading about the schools in Princeton, New Jersey. While the black students in Princeton couldn’t go to Princeton University, they went to historically black and historically white institutions because their teachers instilled in them that they could, and they could be the best.
Dr. John Hope Franklin honored at the Ellis Walker Woods memorial (Photo by Black Wall Street Times’ Staff)
We’re just coming from Jackson, Mississippi. We had been all across Mississippi and seeing the extreme challenges that people faced, the hostile working environments; people didn’t give up. Education is a part of that grounding of our ancestors — going all the way back to slavery times because it was illegal for us to learn how to read and to write. People [newly liberated African Americans] wanted to learn how to read and to write, even more.
This last year being Frederick Douglass bicentennial, I reread his narrative. He wanted to read, and one of his mistresses began to teach him how to read, and her husband objected. He said, ‘it’s dangerous; you can’t teach him how to read.’ [A young Frederick Douglass] would get the white children in the neighborhood to help him learn his letters. He started getting books, and he made his own library. He studied every word in every book to build himself, to build his knowledge. That’s the kind of perseverance that we see across the country in every time period: 19th Century, 20th Century. That is our challenge for our children to understand now that education is just as important as its always been. You can’t shame someone into saying, ‘you’re trying to be white, or you’re trying to be whatever.’ No! You need to go on and try to be the best — learn as much as you can.
The last two years, I’ve spoken at a youth detention facility in Maryland. They were black, white, Latino — already in the criminal justice system. I said to them: The most important thing for you is to continue to learn while you’re here because you will be getting out and you’ll be needing to get jobs, and you’ll be needing to have the ability to convince people that they should hire you. You should be able to convince them that you can speak well, write well, and try to enlarge your vocabulary daily. They just looked at me as if they had never even thought of that. Wherever our young people are, it’s our responsibility to share as much knowledge as we can with them — whether they’re our children or not.
After I spoke to these incarcerated youth, the Latino said to their interpreters, ‘No one had told us where the black people came from,’ these are 13 to 17-year-olds. Apparently, after I spoke with them and shared maps of our history, the relationships between the black and Latino inmates improved.
I just retired from the Smithsonian, but my most rewarding experiences, the month I retired, was speaking to three second-grade classes about our shared history. It was a very diverse school, and they were all excited because they were planning to come to the national African American history museum. They were thirsty for knowledge. They were excited, and then they came to the museum. We have to inspire them. These are the little youngins — when they are curious. When they are sponges, they are ready to learn. We need to spend time with them. We need to focus on things that they need to know.
I love spending time with young people.
When we were in Mississippi, we were going to the places where the lynchings occurred, where people had fought and died for the right to vote. Places we’ve heard about all of our lives, but we actually went to these places, the physical locations of these places. Then, we went to the relatively new civil rights museum. There are two museums [in Jackson, Mississippi]: The Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum are conjoined. Then we saw the pictures and heard the voices of the people, from the places that we had just been. It reinforced the power of their experiences and the importance of their struggle, and you see how young some of the people were. These are young people saying, ‘we need to make a change.’ When you look at a place like Birmingham, where the demonstrations are lead by middle school and high school students, this is also a way to inspire our children that you’re going to be a part of it. You are a part of the society. You have to decide how you are going to make it better.
We met a man the first day [in Jackson], who heard about the freedom riders, and he was 13 and went to see the bus station where the freedom riders were arrested, and he [too] was arrested and put on death row.
Look at, after the school violence, how the students decided ‘Okay, you adults are not making a difference. We’re going to do something. We’re going to make a change. We’re going to have influence.‘
Someone suggested that one of the best stories about the African American spirits in Mississippi is a book called Coming of Age in Mississippi by Ann Moody. We went back to the museum before our flight and saw the rest of the civil rights museum. It was pretty empty, pretty quiet. We could hear videos and see their exhibitions. And we bought the book. I started reading it on the plane yesterday, and I’m at the point now where this little girl moved from plantation to plantation — from her earliest years. It started when she was 4, and I think she’s about 9 now — is having to work in white peoples’ homes after school sweeping; she gets paid, and that helps, to actually, feed her. This is in the 20th Century. I don’t quite know when. [The book hasn’t] given me a reference to the year. I assume that it’s in the ’40s and ’50s, and she’s very, very, very poor, but she’s already excelling in school. I’ve gotten to the point where the family she’s working for have her sit at the table with them, and they say ‘you’re very smart, and we want to help you improve.’ That’s where I left off yesterday on the plane.
So all of these stories we have to know. We have to know not just the stories about where we are, but about stories of other places — one of the challenges I’ve always faced dealing with Tulsa and Tulsans is while the story here is unique you still have to learn about other places and how other places are coping with their history.
I brought here, a letter of apology, from Sumner, Mississippi [the town where Emmett Till was lynched]. There was justice. There was a process of justice, even though they weren’t convicted and they’ve in a dialogue facilitated by the William Winter Institute for Reconciliation where the blacks and whites, who never discussed their history together, came together and formed an apology to the black family.
Tulsa needs to see this letter.
Tulsa is as close to Holocaust denial as we’ve seen in the United States.”
John Hope Franklin ribbon-cutting ceremony (Photo by Black Wall Street Times’ Staff)
To the credit of the Tulsa Public Schools district’s Board of Education, for the past two years, the city of Tulsa has set a precedent for other American cities in renaming multiple schools, that once honored Confederate generals, to the very people that helped transform America and even the hometown of John Hope Franklin. Names like Wayman Tisdale and Dolores Huerta empower students who naturally, due to their personal, cultural connection, can feel proud to have schools named after people who look like them. Now, John Hope Franklin is another honorable man whose name can now be highly-revered and remembered for generations to come.
Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder and executive editor of The Black Wall Street Times, a community school educator, TEDx alum, blogger for EdPost, Tulsa World community advisory board member, and Tulsa Press Club board member.