archives · John Hope Franklin · slavery

oklahoma talks prompts memory of a great one

img_3830This week, I will speak in Oklahoma as a guest of the Oklahoma Association of Professional Historians and neighboring state chapters of Phi Alpha Theta. As I prepare to travel to Southwestern Oklahoma State University, I am reminded of one of the state’s great natives: the late historian John Hope Franklin.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I stood in a line to have him sign a copy of his newly published autobiography. He didn’t know I was a student. Indeed, the room was as full of African Americans and others from the local community as it was with scholars and students.


That’s how much this man was regarded by people from different backgrounds. He, among other things, aided Thurgood Marshall’s preparations for the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case that made it possible for me and numerous others to attend schools with people who did not look like us, ones who became friends, not just classmates.

Anyway…on that day I approached Franklin, who was born in 1915 in Rentiesville, Oklahoma, I got the courage to indeed tell him that I was a grad student and moreover, a first year PhD student. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Don’t let ’em see you flinch.” I smiled, nodded and thanked him. I moved on not fully knowing how much I’d need that advice then and across time. I moved on not fully knowing his legacy at Chicago – he was once the Chair of the department – and elsewhere including Harvard where he earned his PhD.

Whenever I want to complain about the rigor of academic life, I think of how nothing I have experienced compares to what Franklin experienced as he tried to make the world a better place. I take all of this in as I head to Oklahoma also home to the  OKC Thunder.

I love Russell Westbrook’s energy (and how he can dance. Loved the recent All-Star game moves).

My two papers to be presented on Friday and Saturday are titled “Remember Me to Miss Louisa, Or On Navigating Our Complex Historical Shared Past and Present,” and  “The New State of Affairs and Our Remedies,” (the former addresses the complex ways black and white Americans have long “known” one another, especially here in the South; the latter harps on the words of Elvira Townsend, one of the ten children freed by a white Huntsville, AL, planter on the eve of the Civil War).

Special thanks to  Sunu Kodumthara, Associate Professor of History at SWOSU, for extending the invite to speak. We met last year at the Western Association of Women Historians (WAWH) meeting. There, my book Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America, was awarded the Barbara “Penny” Kanner Prize, which recognizes excellence in the use of archival materials. I am grateful to her at and so many others in that incredible organization.

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