by AndrewMc | 3/26/2009 06:10:00 AM
The news that prominent historian John Hope Franklin has died fills me with a great deal of sadness.

John Hope was my intellectual "grandfather." That is, he was my MA thesis adviser's adviser. I wouldn't say I knew him well, but we knew each other well enough that we'd had a few meals together and always exchanged a few words at conferences. He was one of two people--the other being historian Paul Conkin--who shaped how I see myself professionally as a historian.

In the next few days there will be an outpouring of essays and obituaries honoring the man who blazed so many paths for African Americans and for historians. But I want to share three small experiences that I will always remember.




John Hope was a "larger-than-life" historian. Many will laugh, but in the historical profession, John Hope was a rock star. He attended two of the same professional conferences that I regularly frequent--the Southern Historical Association and the American Historical Association. At annual meetings he was always mobbed. There would be throngs of historians coming up to say hello, a sort of "kiss-the ring" moment.

And John Hope always took the time to stop and talk to them. Always. Regardless of what he was doing, this famous person, famous historian, always took some time to give some words of encouragement to the newer generation of historians.

Not everyone is like that. I remember one conference when I was a graduate student. I had approached a historian--let's call hir Professor Doe--whose work I greatly admired. I walked up to hir and said "Ah, hello, Professor Doe. My name is AndrewMc, I'm a graduate student. I've read your [well-known book] and really enjoyed it. It's really shaped how I think about the subject."

Professor Doe looked at me as if I were a bug and said [with no small amount of scorn] "That's nice," and walked away. OK, whatever. Grad students can be a pain in the butt. Historians can have big egos. I didn't take it personally.

For John Hope, though, there was always time to speak to everyone. Around the time he got the Presidential Medal of Freedom I asked him about this. I said "You know, you can hardly make it across a room without getting mobbed. And yet you always take time to speak to everyone. How do you have the patience?"

Here was what he told me.

Decades ago, he was the second African American ever to enter graduate school at Harvard University. The first was WEB DuBois. One day John Hope was on campus--I believe it was the library--and he saw DuBois at a table, working. So he went over to speak to him. John Hope walked over (nervously, as he described it) to DuBois and said "Um, hello Mr. DuBois. My name is John Hope Franklin. You were the first black grad student at Harvard. I'm the second." He said that DuBois never looked up to acknowledge him, mumbled something, and then ignored him.

John Hope told me that at that moment he decided that he would never ignore anyone, especially grad students, who wanted or needed a moment of his time. And there were many conferences where I saw that vow in action. As I said, he was always mobbed, and always patient.

I thought that was a great story, and a great example of professionalism on the part of John Hope Franklin. Always take time to talk to people. Never let your ego get in the way of your encounters. My work in the professional is minor, and not well known. But John Hope's example is one that I hope I can always follow.


At another conference after my experience with Professor Doe, I happened to be speaking with John Hope and my adviser when Professor Doe [hirself a prominent historian] walked up to our group. In what was exactly the same nervous voice I had probably had when I spoke to Doe, sie said to John Hope "Um, Professor Franklin? My name is Professor Doe. I'm a great admirer of your work, and you've been a huge influence on me."

John Hope broke out in a huge smile. "Professor Doe! Great to meet you! I really enjoy your writing. Your book is wonderful." And then John Hope introduced Professor Doe to the two of us standing with him. Priceless.

When I think of John Hope Franklin what comes to me aren't all the books, or the trailblazing Civil Rights work, or the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I think of a very famous guy who always had time to give. That's how I'll remember him.

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10 Comments:


Blogger Ahistoricality on 3/26/2009 9:09 AM:

This is why the highest praise is not "a scholar's scholar" but "a scholar and a gentleman" (taking, of course, the sense of nobility and obligation that defines a gentleman as a modern humanistic and gender-neutral function.....)

 

Blogger AndrewMc on 3/26/2009 9:44 AM:

Agreed. From Paul Conkin I got this:

He showed up for work every day. Got there at 8am. Had a lunch box that was on old-school workman's lunch box--like this.

He worked until 5pm and was always in his office unless he was teaching and doing committee work. I once asked him about all that. He said "Always remember that this is your job. If you treat it like a job, you'll get a lot of work done."

 

Anonymous Ralph Luker on 3/26/2009 12:52 PM:

If I'm not mistaken, it was: 1) Du Bois, 2) Carter G. Woodson, 3) John Hope Franklin.

 

Blogger AndrewMc on 3/26/2009 1:08 PM:

Could be that order. But that was how he told the story. I wasn't going to correct him. :)

 

Blogger Ralph Brauer on 3/28/2009 12:01 AM:

I had heard the story as your related it, but as Ralph Luker points out I think the facts say otherwise. But again, that is not the point of the essay.

I have known a few great people in my time and it seems the greatest always had the qualities you ascribe to Franklin.

Thank you for sharing this.

 

Blogger Alexander on 3/28/2009 1:10 PM:

Gosh! Not ignoring people is a trait people are admired for an academia! Gives you a hint on the type of people you will meet in academia!

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 3/28/2009 1:53 PM:

As in any field, there's often a significant overlap between "important" people and "self-important" people. Ever tried to talk to a CEO?

Someone of Franklin's real importance, scope and reach really needs to have a solid character to maintain that kind of humanistic approach given his level of success.

 

Blogger AndrewMc on 3/29/2009 12:58 AM:

I agree with Ahist. This is typical of any kind of corporate community. You have egotistical types filled with self-importance.

And, rarely, you have John Hope Franklins.

 

Blogger elle on 3/29/2009 8:55 PM:

Beautiful.

 

Blogger The History Enthusiast on 3/30/2009 12:56 PM:

This was a beautiful tribute. I wish I had had the opportunity to meet him.