No Crystal Stair
Living in a world restricted by laws defining race, as well as creating obstacles, disadvantages, and even superstitions regarding race, challenged my capacities for survival. For ninety years I have witnessed countless men and women likewise meet this challenge. Some bested it; some did not; many had to settle for any accommodation they could. I became a student and eventually a scholar. And it was armed with the tools of scholarship that I strove to dismantle those laws, level those obstacles and disadvantages, and replace superstitions with humane dignity. Along with much else, the habits of scholarship granted me something many of my similarly striving contemporaries did not have. I knew, or should say know, what we are up against.
Slavery was a principal centerpiece of the New World Order that set standards of conduct including complicated patterns of relationships. These lasted not merely until emancipations but after Reconstruction and on into the twentieth century. Many of them were still very much in place when beginning in the late 1950s, the sit-ins, marches, and the black revolution began a successful onslaught on some of the antediluvian practices that had become a part of the very fabric of society in the New World and American society in particular.
Born in 1915, I grew up in a racial climate that was stifling to my senses and damaging to my emotional health and social well-being. Society at that time presented a challenge to the strongest adult, and to a child it was not merely difficult but cruel. I watched my mother and father, who surely numbered among the former, daily meet that challenge; I and my three siblings felt equally that cruelty. And it was no more possible to escape that environment of racist barbarism than one today can escape the industrial gases that pollute the atmosphere.
This climate touched me at every stage of my life. I was forcibly removed from a train at the age of six for having accidentally taken a seat in the “white people’s coach.” I was the unhappy victim, also at age six, of a race riot that kept the family divided for more than four years. I endured the very strict segregation laws and practices in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was rejected as a guide through busy downtown Tulsa traffic by a blind white woman when she discovered that the twelve-year-old at her side was black. I underwent the harrowing experience as a sixteen-year-old college freshman of being denounced in the most insulting terms for having the temerity to suggest to a white ticket seller a convenient way to make change. More harrowing yet was the crowd of rural white men who confronted and then nominated me as a possible Mississippi lynching victim when I was nineteen. I was refused service while on a date as a Harvard University graduate student at age twenty-one. Racism in the navy turned my effort to volunteer during World War II into a demeaning embarrassment, such that at a time when the United States was ostensibly fighting for the Four Freedoms I struggled to evade the draft. I was called a “Harvard nigger” at age forty. At age forty-five, because of race, New York banks denied me a loan to purchase a home. At age sixty I was ordered to serve as a porter for a white person in a New York hotel, at age eighty to hang up a white guest’s coat at a Washington club where I was not an employee but a member.
To these everyday, ordinary experiences during ninety years in the American race jungle should be added the problem of trying to live in a community where the economic and social odds clearly placed any descendant of Africans at a disadvantage. For a profession, my father, Buck Franklin, proudly chose the practice of law. Depending as it did on the judicial system in which it operated, the practice of law in America could not possibly have functioned favorably or even fairly for a person who qualified as, at best, a pariah within it. My father, ever the optimist, persisted in holding the view that the practice of law was a noble pursuit whose nobility entailed the privilege of working to rectify a system that contained a set of advantages for white people and a corresponding set of disadvantages for black people. The integrity and the high moral standards by which he lived and that he commended to his children forbade him to violate the law or resort to any form of unethical conduct. And, as children, we had to adjust ourselves to dignified, abject poverty.
My mother, Mollie, shared these views, to which she added a remarkable amount of creativity and resourcefulness in her effort to supplement the family income and boost the family morale. She taught in public schools, made hats, and developed a line of beauty aids. To these creative skills should be added her equanimity, her sense of fairness, her high standards of performance, and her will to succeed. On many occasions she would say to me, “If you do your best, the angels cannot do any better!” These qualities became the hallmark of her relationship with her four children, giving us the strength and skills to cope with the formidable odds she knew we would encounter. If we did not always succeed, it was not the fault of our parents.
But the challenges I, my brother, Buck, and my sisters, Mozella and Anne, faced were always formidable. Living through years of remarkable change, the barrier of race was a constant. With the appearance of each new institution or industry, racism would rear its ugly head again. When the age of the automobile made its debut, there was the question of whether African Americans should be given the opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to find work within that industry. It was the same with the advent of the computer age. More than one company dragged its feet when it came to making certain that young people on “both sides of the track” had an opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to be successful participants in the new scientific revolution. Indeed, the expansion of numerous American industries caused debates or at least discussions regarding the abilities of African Americans to cope with new developments, whatever they were. Even at the end of the twentieth century, many Americans continued to debate nineteenth-century racial theories regarding the abilities of blacks to see at night, to make accurate calculations, and to learn foreign languages. These debates ranged from discussions having to do with the effect of African Americans on the growth of the gross national product to their ability to resist new diseases or their capacity to adjust to new educational or cultural developments. Throughout a life spent at the intersection of scholarship and public service, I have been painfully aware that superstitions and quaint notions of biological and even moral differences between blacks and whites continue to affect race relations in the United States—even into the twenty-first century.
In 1943 Gunnar Myrdal called attention to these discussions and debates over racial differences in his classic American Dilemma. And when the Committee on the Status of Black Americans, of which I was a member, took another look in 1989 while updating Myrdal’s book, we saw much the same thing and set forth these and other views in A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society. In our discussion of the problem of race, we declared that it could well create new fissures that might, in turn, lead to an increased level of confrontations and violence. The Rodney King riots of 1991 offered vivid testimony that there still persists much too much potential for racial conflict for anyone to be complacent.
Of the many recollections I have arising from my fifteen months as chair of President Clinton’s advisory board on race is that of the black woman who screamed during a meeting her history of how she had been abused and mistreated because of her race. My memory of the white man who claimed that already too much was being done for African Americans, and it was he who needed protection from policies such as affirmative action, is no less vivid. The advisory board was troubled by these and similar competing claims, and it became clear that open dialogues and, if necessary, limitless discussions were the civilized approach to finding constructive ways of dealing with America’s racial ills. It did and will require not only persistent diligence but also abiding patience.
During my life it has been necessary to work not only as hard as my energies would permit, but to do it as regularly and as consistently as humanly possible. This involved the strictest discipline in the maximum use of my time and energy. I worked two jobs in college and graduate school that made inordinate demands on my time, but there was no alternative to the regimen that circumstances demanded. And those circumstances included a refusal to check my catholic interests that have always prompted me to participate in activities beyond scholarship. Balancing professional and personal activities has resulted in a life full of rich rewards, a consequence deeply indebted to my near sixty-year marriage to Aurelia Whittington. My father called her the Trooper for her patient, good-willed, indomitable spirit. She was that and so much more. How do I calculate the influence of having spent two-thirds of my life living alongside an exemplar of selfless dignity?
Even before we were married, I learned much from Aurelia. She taught me to put others ahead of my own preference, as she did routinely. There is no more vivid example of her habit of self-sacrifice than when she abandoned her own career. She did so in order to be there for Whit, our only child, when our adult Brooklyn neighbors taunted him and sought in every way possible to convey that neither he nor his family was welcome to live in their previously all-white neighborhood.
My life has been dedicated to and publicly defined by scholarship, a lifelong affection for the profession of history and the myriad institutions that support it. A white professor at historically black Fisk University powerfully influenced my choice of a career, one I decided early on to dedicate to new areas of study, wherever possible, in order to maintain a lively, fresh approach to teaching and writing history. This is how I happened to get into African American history, in which I never had a formal course but that attracted an increasing number of students of my generation and many more in later generations. But I was determined that I would not be confined to a box of any kind, so I regarded African American history as not so much a separate field as a subspecialty of American history. Even in graduate school I was interested in women’s history, and in more recent years I have studied and written papers in that field, although I never claimed more than the desire to examine it intensely rather than presume to master it entirely.
I could not work in the field of history without maintaining some contact with other historians and some affiliation with historical associations. Consequently, at the Library of Congress and in local libraries where I was engaged in research, I made a point of meeting other historians and discussing with them matters of mutual interest. I not only maintained an active membership in the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History but joined other groups, even where it became necessary to educate members, to the extent possible, that history knows no bounds, either in the human experience or in the rules governing who is eligible to record it. This would not, could not involve demeaning myself or in any way compromising my own self-respect. On occasion it did involve venturing into groups and organizations when it was not clear if their reception of me would be cool or cordial. Nevertheless, as a consequence I became active in the major national professional organizations long before most other African Americans joined them.
In much the same way, I became involved with historical groups in other parts of the world. My ever-widening contacts in the United States presented me with opportunities to become associated with historians in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America. Each contact was instructive not only about the many things that peoples of the world have in common but also as to the intense interest other peoples have in problems and developments far removed from their own that would nevertheless assist them in understanding their own society. A remarkable and unforeseen result of my determination to pursue my profession wherever it led, be that into the halls of previously all-white academic associations or to the far-flung scholarly organizations scattered across the globe, were the contacts that released me from the straitjacket confinement of pursuing a career exclusively in historically black colleges and universities.
My life and my career have been fulfilled not merely by my own efforts but also by the thoughtful generosity of family, friends, and professional colleagues. I can only hope that they realize, as do I, how interdependent we all are and how much more rewarding and fulfilling life is whenever we reach a level of understanding where we can fully appreciate the extent of our interrelationships with and our reliance on those who came before us, kept us company during our lives, and will come after us.