Monday, March 30, 2009


Sam Smith, Progressive Review - I only met John Hope Franklin once and then just briefly. But I immediately liked him. My wife and I were at a conference at the former farm of Alex Haley in Tennessee, now owned by the Children's Defense Fund. Franklin spoke and had told the story that historian Andrew McMichael recites in the item below.

Sometime during the weekend, we came across Franklin standing near a cottage fence. My wife, a local historian and author, introduced herself and mentioned some of her experiences as a white woman writing about black history. He was immediately sympathetic. I don't remember the details of the conversation, only his encouraging parting words: "You go, girl."

Having spent my life covering the powerful, it hit home. How seldom do those at the top of the heap treat strangers with such interest and friendliness? I recall a spring training in Florida long ago with my young boys when you could still just wander onto the field after practice. Another fan remarked casually to Willie Stargell, "I'm from Pittsburgh, too." Stargell didn't even look at him, saying only, "That's your problem, mister." Or the time, at Joe Rauh's memorial service, when I went up to John Kenneth Galbraith, and introduced myself as the guy whose band had played at three of his annual spring parties long ago. His sole response: "You have a good memory." I told his wife the same thing, however, and she treated me like a long lost friend, including a big hug.

From such experiences I had learned the same lesson as John Hope Franklin did after meeting W E B DuBois: be nice to people you don't know. As another DuBois - Blanche - put it, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Andrew McMichael, Progressive Historians - John Hope was a "larger-than-life" historian. Many will laugh, but in the historical profession, John Hope was a rock star. . . 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. . .

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. .

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