John Hope, the Prince Who Refused the Kingdom

For decades, John Hope Franklin railed against the often segregated academic field of ‘black studies,’ deriding it as intellectual Jim Crow. But there would be no black studies without him, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

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Seeing Dr. Du Bois dining alone and reading, I decided that this was an opportunity that I would not less pass. Crossing the dining room, I approached his table and spoke to him, giving him my full name. Surely he would recognize the fact that I was named for one of his closest friends and hearing it would embrace me. He did not even look up. Then I told him that I was a graduate of Fisk University, class of 1935. That, I assumed, would bring him to his feet singing ‘Gold and Blue.’ Again, he continued to read and eat, without looking up. Finally, as a last resort, I told him that I was a graduate student in history at Harvard and was in Raleigh doing research for my dissertation. Without looking up from his book or plate, he said, ‘How do you do.’ Dejected, I retreated, completed my dinner, and withdrew from the dining room.

John Hope loved to tell that story, always ending it with “Of course we became close friends later, when he and his wife, Shirley, lived in Brooklyn and I was teaching at the College.” He told the story as a way of explaining why he was so very generous with younger colleagues. Myself included.

Two years ago, Butler University invited us both to campus for a dialogue. I agreed, but only if I could play the role of interviewer and if we could talk with no strict time limit attached. John Hope regaled a standing-room-only crowd for over two hours with stories about his family, his education, his political beliefs, his triumphs and disappointments. And then we dined together, sharing a bottle of Margaux, followed by a cognac.

He congratulated me on recruiting Bill Wilson and Cornel West to Harvard despite his best efforts to dissuade them from coming. I congratulated him on receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom; he returned the compliment about my receipt of the National Humanities Medal. I congratulated him on Duke’s creation of the John Hope Franklin Research Center and the forthcoming edition of From Slavery to Freedom, being revised by my colleague Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the first black professor ever to receive tenure in Harvard’s history department. I told him how much I valued the old third edition, the one with the black-and-white cover, and that I deeply regretted that it had gotten misplaced somehow. He told me he was proud of what my colleagues and I had created at Harvard. I shared with him the faculty’s decision to co-name the library at the Du Bois Institute in his honor. He promised to visit, which he did after his speech at Drew Faust’s inauguration. He seemed touched by the gesture.

A few days later, a FedEx envelope arrived at my house in Cambridge. Inside was another package, carefully wrapped in brown paper, the way antiquarians in England wrap books that they mail. When I give books as Christmas presents, I wrap them the same way. There is something wonderful about that brown wrapping paper. Inside the paper was a signed copy of From Slavery to Freedom, the black-and-white paperback edition, dated 1967, the same one that Professor McFeely had assigned us back at Yale. It was signed, “With affectionate best wishes.” It sits in the bookshelf by my bedside.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root and is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University.