Telling it with Feeling

By Maria Di Mento '03 / November / December 2004
June 13th, 2007

When historian John Hope Franklin, now eighty-nine, read his “Open Letter to Jonathan Doe: Reflections on Racial Inequality in America,” to a Salomon audience September 21, he was on one level telling the story of his ancestors, who came to Oklahoma as slaves to Native Americans. His grandfather ran away, joined the army, and eventually became a rancher. The family paid taxes but was barred from attending Oklahoma State University. “I had earned a PhD at Harvard before Oklahoma State opened its doors to African Americans,” Franklin said.

Now an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and Duke, Franklin chaired President Clinton’s Initiative on Race, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and has written numerous books, including the seminal From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. As the opening speaker in the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice’s fall program at Brown, he peered over his glasses and reminded the crowd that his essay is not merely his family’s story: it could be about any African American family that experienced slavery and later segregation. “It’s contrived in this way to get it down to a level where everyone could have some feeling about it.”

After receiving a standing ovation and fielding questions, Franklin shook students’ hands and signed books for nearly an hour. Someone asked him if Clinton’s Initiative on Race was successful. “The committee was,” Franklin said, “but not in conveying to the American people its findings.” The media, he said, failed to publicize the initiative’s work. “This is an area that they are simply not willing to confront.”

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November / December 2004