In the Jim Crow South, African-Americans driving into North Carolina were greeted by a sign from the Ku Klux Klan welcoming them to the state. Meals and restroom breaks were at homes of friends only.
That’s how John W. Franklin remembers it, traveling with his parents. His father, the late historian and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient John Hope Franklin, now has a major North Carolina highway bearing his name.
The “Dr. John H. Franklin Highway” dedication ceremony was held at Hayti Heritage Center on Monday afternoon. The highway honoring him is the section of Interstate 85 between the Cole Mill Road exit and U.S. 70 Bypass in Durham.
Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx proclaimed the highway before he left office with the Obama administration in January. He credited the team effort of N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-1st District) and Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who all also spoke Monday.
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Foxx said he grew up in a neighborhood like Durham’s historically African-American Hayti area – bifurcated by a highway – “yet very few African-American names appear on those freeways.”
That has changed.
“John Hope Franklin helped us understand African-American history in greater context of our American society,” Foxx said, adding that Franklin could lead to more African-Americans and women being recognized on North Carolina’s highways and byways.
Franklin, who was from Oklahoma, spent his early academic career teaching at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh and then N.C. Central University in Durham, where he wrote what has been described as a canonical history, “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans,” published in 1947. Franklin, who received his doctorate from Harvard University, went on to teach at Howard University, Brooklyn College, University of Cambridge and the University of Chicago.
In 1980, he returned to Durham to work at the National Humanities Center and then as the James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke University. Franklin’s “George Washington Williams: A Biography” was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1986. When he was 90, he wrote his memoir, “Mirror to America.”
N.C. Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux (D-Durham), 87, was 7 years old when he met Franklin, a friend of his father.
When Michaux would see Franklin at speaking events, Franklin would correct Michaux’s historical references.
“I just told his son, the only influence I had on him is I bought a Lexus, and he liked it and bought one, too,” Michaux said. “He was good friend of the family, and we cherished him.”
John Hope Franklin was not only a great African-American, but a great American who has done so much for our country.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield
Franklin died in 2009 at age 94. Duke named three centers after him -- the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies, the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and the John Hope Franklin Research Center in Rubenstein Library.
“John Hope Franklin was not only a great African-American, but a great American who has done so much for our country,” Butterfield said. “He knew his strength was intellectual. He knew his strength was education. He spent his lifetime imparting knowledge to America.”
Franklin was a man of the people, too, said Bell.
Bell said he met Franklin in the 1970s when Bell was first running for Durham County Board of Commissioners and seeking Franklin’s support for his campaign, which he got. Bell also remembers seeing Franklin often around Durham, eating fish at Dillard’s restaurant with his old friend Walter Brown or at home tending his orchids.
Durham County Manager Wendell Davis also talked about Franklin being down-to-earth.
“He was as comfortable on the national stage as in his greenhouse tending to his orchids,” Davis said.
Gail Faulkner Hudson of the Durham Literacy Center, which Franklin co-founded in the 1980s, wore an orchid pin as she spoke about Franklin, who told her that teaching someone to read, like tending to his orchids, took patience and a tender touch.
Cooper said Franklin spent his lifetime dedicated to the betterment of others.
“Durham and the entire state of North Carolina were blessed to become his home,” Cooper said. “He wielded history as a tool.”