North Carolina’s notable book of 2006
Only one book with a strong North Carolina connection earned a place in the recent New York Times list of this year’s 100 notable books.
If you had to guess which one, you might mention one of the four books written by North Carolina connected authors whose books are in the top six of this week’s New York Times fiction best seller list (Nicholas Sparks, Patricia Cornwell, Jan Karon, and Maya Angelou).
But you would be wrong.
The North Carolina author on the notable books list is John Hope Franklin for his autobiography, Mirror to America.
Franklin, an emeritus history professor at Duke, recently celebrated his 90th birthday. He remains active as a scholar and public intellectual whose judgment and advice are sought by people all over the world. President Clinton recruited him to chair the advisory board for the President’s Initiative on Race in 1997.
Franklin’s autobiography takes its readers from his growing-up years in segregated Oklahoma and at Fisk University in Nashville, through his groundbreaking experiences as a graduate student at Harvard and department chair at Brooklyn College and the University of Chicago. His story is the story of our country in the last century.
More important for me is that his story gives us a look at North Carolina during the times of segregation and struggle for civil rights through the eyes of a black man whose intelligence, scholarship and powers of observation make him an unusually good reporter.
Franklin’s first important connection to our state was a romantic one. While a student at Fisk, he fell in love with Aurelia Whittington from Goldsboro. They were married in Goldsboro in 1940. Until her death in 1999, she was an important reason for Franklin’s continuing ties to our state.
Scholarship was a second connection. Although Franklin had hoped to concentrate on British history at Harvard, he could not afford the travel that would be required for research. His doctoral dissertation topic was the free Negro in North Carolina during the time before the Civil War. This work required access to our state’s archives. In 1939, when Franklin called on Christopher Crittenden, the director of the state archives, he learned that ‘“in planning the building the architects had never anticipated that any African American would ever do research there.’” Crittenden arranged for a separate study area that was consistent with the segregated customs and regulations that ordered even scholarly research in those days.
A third important connection came out of Crittenden’s admiration for Franklin’s dissertation. He ‘“pronounced it ready for publication and expressed the view that it was a ‘natural’ for the University of North Carolina Press.’” The resulting book, The Free Negro in North Carolina 1790-1860, was first published in 1943 and is still in print today.
Franklin’s work in Raleigh put him in contact with a position as a history professor at St. Augustine’s College. Later, as a result of a connection with Dr. James E. Shepard, the founder and president of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), he joined the faculty of that school.
Franklin made professional connections and friendships across the segregated racial lines at UNC and Duke. On one occasion, while he delivered a guest lecture at UNC, the host professor was called out of the classroom to take a long distance call. Later Franklin learned that a university trustee had called to order the professor to remove Franklin ‘“immediately.’” The professor ignored the order. (Tenure is sometimes a wonderful thing.)
Franklin tells warm stories of the hospitality and friendship of whites who helped him professionally and became his friends. Chapel Hill’s Guy and Guion Johnson opened their home and their files to him. Arthur Link ‘“was so strong in his Presbyterian faith that if he was commanded to love his brother, of whatever race, he did so with fervor.’”
Franklin left North Carolina in 1947 for a position at Howard University. But his and his wife’s North Carolina connections kept open the possibility of coming back, which he did in 1980. Having lived in our state much longer than any other place, including his native Oklahoma, Franklin is properly identified as a true North Carolinian.