It is hard to remember when the nation showered as much attention on a North Carolinian as it did when John Hope Franklin died in Durham last week at the age of 94.
All the front page newspaper attention and television coverage was capped by a color photo spread across two-thirds of the top half of the Sunday New York Times “Week in Review” section.
The newspaper stories and personal tributes summarized Franklin's role as the leading scholar and persuasive chronicler of the African American experience and as a powerful moral leader in the struggle for equal rights for all its citizens.
In light of all this favorable attention, is it fair for North Carolina to claim Franklin as one of her own?
After all, he came to North Carolina to live only after his retirement from the faculty of the University of Chicago.
Or, from a different angle, would Franklin really want to claim our state as his own, given his experiences here as a young scholar who suffered the humiliation of separate and second-class facilities and treatment?
Thanks to a video of a speech Franklin prepared for the North Carolina Society of New York we have the answer to those questions.
The society, founded in the late 1890s by James B. Duke and other North Carolinians living in New York, honors a prominent North Carolinian each year at a large formal meeting at the University Club.
In December the society gave this honor to Franklin. He planned to accept the award in person, but when that proved impossible, he prepared a video of his acceptance remarks. Unfortunately, the video arrived too late to arrange for its showing. But Josie Patton, who had helped arrange for the award to Franklin, saved the video and shared it with me last week.
Here are portions of one of Franklin's last public speeches:
“Let me say first of all that I am, I think, a North Carolinian more than anything else.
“I was born in Oklahoma, and every time I go to Oklahoma people want to know why I haven't come there for my retirement. They simply don't understand.
“I first came to North Carolina in 1939 to do research on my doctoral dissertation. And I was smitten by the state and have continued to be smitten since that time.
“My first stint here was from 1939 to 1947 during which time I finished my dissertation, taught at St. Augustine College, taught at N.C. Central College for Negroes, at A&T College for one summer.
“ I left the state in 1947 and thought that I was leaving for good, but I didn't even know myself. From the moment I left North Carolina, I began to pine for it again. I wanted to return.…
“I had gone on to become a professor at Howard University [1947 to 1956] … [Then] I went to England for a year as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University. Then I went from there to University of Chicago, where I remained 16 years.
“Don't think I'd forgotten North Carolina. I had not. My wife, being as a native of North Carolina, joined me in her enthusiasm to visit whenever we could…. So when the time came for my retirement in '80, I came running to North Carolina, where I have been for the last 28 years.
“I want to say that no one could love this state more than I do.
“I would decline to compete, for I am at the top of the list when it comes to enthusiasts for North Carolina.”
So can we fairly claim Franklin as a North Carolinian?
Take his word for it.