I had only been teaching at Duke University for a few months when I caught one of my first public glimpses of John Hope Franklin. It was a chance encounter at a local supermarket—one of the many times I would encounter him during his daily routine. Flanked by my then-7-year-old daughter, I approached Dr. Franklin so she could meet him.
Dr. Franklin graciously extended his hand to shake my daughter’s and asked her about school. As Dr. Franklin walked away to get back to the business of grocery shopping (he only walked a few yards before another patron stopped him), I told my daughter about the many awards, firsts and special honors that made him a towering, awe-inspiring figure.
None of those reasons seemed to resonate with my 7-year-old, so I simply said to her “Dr. Franklin is a great man,” to which she responded, “That’s all you had to say.”
Indeed, a week after his death at age 94, there are still many such reflections pouring forth from Dr. Franklin’s friends and colleagues. It would be easy to qualify the gigantic influence of John Hope Franklin by simply providing a list of his scholarly achievements and noting his role as a “public” intellectual and activist well before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle.
But the real measure of Dr. Franklin, the man, was his commitment to make a human connection, with those he came in contact with. “[He] was as gentle as he was fiercely intelligent,” said Karla FC Holloway, a professor of English and law at Duke University and a co-founder of the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies, shortly after his death. “His friendship was a fine thing—and the tens of thousands who felt the same were company you felt privileged to be among.”
Trina Jones, a founding professor of the new UC Irvine School of Law and a former colleague of Dr. Franklin at Duke, recalled being smitten, like most, upon their first meeting: “He kissed the back of my hand, and oh, I was so charmed.” As she got to know Dr. Franklin better, he encouraged her to call him “John Hope,” but according to her, “in my heart, he was [and will always be] Dr. Franklin, our beloved elder, teacher, mentor and friend.”
The human connection that Dr. Franklin made with so many was also captured in his storytelling ability—one of the things that kept so many drawn to him. John L. Jackson Jr., a professor of communications and anthropology at Duke, once shared a flight from Nashville, Tenn. with Dr. Franklin. On the flight, Franklin regaled him with funny stories about teaching at Howard University in the late 1940s and having to track down his paycheck on a regular basis.
As a graduate student at New York University, Boston College historian Davarian Baldwin picked up Dr. Franklin from the airport for an event at the university. “All the way to the hotel he schooled me with stories about Harvard, about being this illustrious figure and still facing ‘Jim Crow North’ at Brooklyn College and those stories,” he said. “Being the storyteller that he is, he just put my whole professional life in perspective.”
Baldwin notes that after his encounter with Dr. Franklin, he felt “a new stride, a stride of confidence—damn, look whose shoulders on which I stand—but also a new stride of responsibility—damn, I hope that I can be a shard, a glimmer of the light he is to me and so many others.”
I imagine that those of us in academia whose careers have been made possible by his strides will be sharing stories like these for some time. Thankfully his contributions to our field could fill several lifetimes. But for those of us who struggle to carry on his work, this link to the past will be greatly missed.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of black popular culture in the Department of African & African-American Studies at Duke University.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.