By Dr. Marybeth Gasman
In 1997, while I was doing my dissertation research, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview historian John Hope Franklin. As a doctoral student, I was nervous about the interview and lacked confidence in my knowledge of American history. Here I was about to interview one of the nation’s great historians. Within minutes, my nervousness went away as Dr. Franklin was incredibly kind and made me feel instantly at ease. He had a quick wit and used self-deprecating humor in a great way.
I remember feeling anxious because I was young and also, frankly, because I was White. I wondered what he would think about my doing research related to African American history. At the time I was writing my dissertation on Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the former president of Fisk University and Harlem Renaissance architect. Dr. Franklin was completely supportive, explaining how society had changed so much in his lifetime, how this change had been made by people of various racial backgrounds working together, how all of our histories were intertwined, and how he was grateful that young people were more accepting of differences.
What I remember most about the interview was that despite his broad knowledge, accomplishments and daunting intelligence, he had a sweet disposition. It reminded me of something my mother once told me, “You get more with sugar than you do with vinegar.” I was asking him questions that forced him to recall his actions in the 1950s. As he was 82, he had a bit of difficulty remembering everything. When I asked him to recall his actions in a controversial Fisk University board meeting, he said, “if you said I did that sweetie, I did it – I’m an old mad who knows he led an interesting life but can’t recall it all.” This interaction has stuck with me for years.
I hope all of the Diverse readers will take a few minutes to read the work of Dr. Franklin. He spent years uncovering the agency, actions and contributions African Americans and bringing them to the forefront of American history. Bravo!