My wife Nancy and I found ourselves much more deeply moved by the news of our friend John Hope Franklin’s death than we ever expected. I have known him for an astonishing 48 years, since my days at Brooklyn College, where he chaired the history department. Since we both ended up back in Durham in the 1980s, we enjoyed a deepening friendship, and he welcomed Nancy into our little circle with warmth and love.
What stands out for me right now is his role as the “godfather” of our documentary film, Durham: A Self-Portrait. He was immediately encouraging when I first spoke with him about the idea of doing a film about Durham’s unique story. He told wonderful stories about the heroes of Durham’s black community: Dr. James Shepard, founder of what is now N.C. Central University; C.C. Spaulding, longtime great leader of the N.C. Mutual; and many others. He had this uncanny ability to immerse us in a long-ago world of Durham during and after World War II, while at the same moment giving thoughtful analysis and historical perspective about the achievements and the costs of life in the Jim Crow South.
I remember being particularly struck by the multi-layered portrait he painted of Shepard. More “radical” activist black leaders of the ’60s and later tended to dismiss men like Shepard as accomodationists, even blasting them with the dreaded label “Oreo.”
Shepard, Spaulding and, earlier, John Merrick and Aaron Moore were indeed realists about the threat of white violence. Yet behind the veil of segregation and in their dealings with the majority, they were also thoroughly “race men,” as the expression went back in the day. They made enormous progress possible and worked hard to maintain their dignity and their sanity in an insane world. They helped build some economic foundations; they built a community.
Franklin remembered that when Shepard traveled to Raleigh to lobby for what was then N.C. College for Negroes (where a young history professor named John Hope Franklin was teaching and writing From Slavery to Freedom), he traveled by car, refusing to sit in the Jim Crow seats on the train. At Christmas, white merchants gladly carted boxes of shirts, haberdashery and other gift items right to Shepard’s office, so he could quietly select items and avoid the possibility of dealing with rudeness downtown. Survival strategies? Accomodationism? He did create the only state-supported liberal arts college for African-Americans in the nation!
John Hope himself had many of those qualities: perseverance, a quiet but steady anger at any and all injustice, the strength of character of a public diplomat. He was born in 1915 and raised in much the same challenging climate that also produced Shepard and Spaulding. He was both a “race man” of the mid-20th century and a thoroughly liberated, inspiring advocate for justice, equity and an enthusiastic embrace of the whole human community, in all its fabulous diversity. He was truly a free man. What a gift it was to call him friend for almost half a century.