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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Mirror to America

John Hope Franklin devoted his life to the history of the United States evolution of racism. His 1947 From Slavery to Freedom laid the groundwork for much of the scholarship in African-American history. He worked to supply Thurgood Marshall with the historical scholarship needed to win in the Brown v Board of Education case.

Following Pearl Harbor, Franklin had tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy. He had already earned a PhD from Harvard in history and thought he could be useful to the war effort. He was told that he qualified only as a cook or cleaner of latrines. Even the U.S. Army, which was busy recruiting historians to report on the war effort could find no use for him.

Most of us who celebrated the Civil Rights movement like to believe that we've moved beyond the shackles of the early twentieth century in the way we interact with black Americans. So it was disheartening to read in Hope's recent biography, Mirror to America, of an incident that took place at a Washington, D.C. party in 1995. Franklin had just been awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the party, a white woman, "called me out, presented me with her coat check, and ordered me to bring her coat." Of course, it could be the woman, who must have been completely ignorant of why there was a party in the first place, was just a stupid moron, but it does make one wonder how far we have yet to go. Then again, perhaps that line is just another example of middle-class WASP paternalism.
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