• U.S.

Scholars: Negro at Cambridge

3 minute read

“The only valid base on which to build the New World republic was one characterized by democracy and equality. The tragedy of this republic was that as long as human slavery existed its base had a fallacy that made it both incongruous and specious.” So writes this year’s visiting William Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University, and only an occasional reader will sense that John Hope Franklin is himself a descendant of slaves. “I have maintained my objectivity,” says Franklin, “but it takes some doing.”

When not in England, John Hope Franklin, 47, serves as head of the history department at Brooklyn College. Last month he became the first Negro member of Washington’s Cosmos Club, the club of scientists, scholars, journalists and government officials that earned itself a flurry of criticism last year by rejecting the application of another Negro.

Wrong Skin. Franklin’s cool dignity comes from his doughty father, one of Oklahoma’s first Negro lawyers. No sooner had Lawyer Franklin begun practice in segregated Tulsa in 1921 than race rioters burned down his office. He went on in a tent, became one of the state’s leading citizens. “My father scorned segregation as a mark of indignity,” recalls his son. “He paid no attention to signs marked ‘Negro’ and ‘White.’ He went where he pleased, mingling with people like any other man.”

Franklin waited tables through Fisk, graduated magna cum laude; he typed Ph.D. dissertations to work his way through Harvard, got his doctorate in American history. In World War II, Franklin applied for clerical work in the Navy. The reply: “You have even better qualifications than we are asking for in all respects but one—the color of your skin.” The turndown hurt, but it gave Franklin time to become an expert on Negro and Civil War history. He taught for nine years at Howard, helped write the N.A.A.C.P.’s 1954 Supreme Court brief against school segregation, and in 1956 took over at Brooklyn. “I haven’t really had to struggle much,” he says.

White Progress. At Cambridge, filling a position that in the past has gone to such notables as Cornell’s Clinton Rossiter and Amherst’s Henry Steele Commager, Franklin analyzes the Civil War for” his mostly British students, telling them “how a great experiment could have come to be perched on the brink of disaster.” He refuses to let Americans “be happy” with the bland idea that no one need be blamed for the Civil War. It was caused, he says, by the extremism of a South that “always seems to have looked over its shoulder—frequently seeing what was not there.” His just published The Emancipation Proclamation (Doubleday; $3.50) hopefully suggests that “perhaps” Lincoln’s manifesto—100 years old last week—will eventually “give real meaning and purpose to the Declaration of Independence.”

But Franklin has few illusions about U.S. race relations; he holds a “peculiar view” of the process: “Almost invariably the Negro progresses only to the extent that the white man advances in under standing that a human being is a human being. There have been Negroes as talented as I before me, but they could not get where I have because the white man was not advanced enough to let them.”

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