The conference was made up of 50 teachers and school librarians who had been awarded the American Memory Fellowship. One morning before our seminar, I heard some teachers in the back of the hall excitedly discussing John Hope Franklin . Had they met him?
They had indeed! In fact, they'd had breakfast with him that morning. My partner and I (a high school English teacher) were the only two in the group from North Carolina and John Hope Franklin was an esteemed scholar and author. I knew about him because the school library I managed had thirty copies of his book, From Slavery to Freedom. I turned to my colleagues and said, "I'm from North Carolina and I'd like to meet him, too!"
And someone responded, "well, just come to the hotel dining room for breakfast tomorrow morning." And that's what I did.
That morning, I approached the dining room of the Capitol Suites Hotel, and saw Mr. Franklin at a large round table, "holding court" to a group of educators. When I entered, he stood up, gesturing to the empty seat beside him. I was so honored that this great man had saved a seat for me!
As we ate together, he told me stories of late wife, their orchid garden, his many travels, and the book he was working on, his autobiography, in the Jefferson Building. I was spellbound. But most of all, Mr. Franklin was interested in me, my career, my family. I can honestly say, he was one of the kindest people I'd ever met. At one point a friend of his entered the room, whose name I don't recall but I do remember what a classy dresser he was. He was, or at one time, had been affiliated with the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company.
After breakfast, I departed for the Hart Building to deliver some remarks at Senator Edwards' "Tarheel Thursday" meeting, where his listended to concerns of constituents. As I exited the door of the Madison Building, there was Mr. Franklin on the porch, waiting for his ride to the library. We warmly greeted each other. He told me to be sure to stop by, the John Hope Franklin Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies in Durham. Wow, a personal invitation! And he asked me to give his regards to Senator Edwards, which I did. To that, Senator Edwards responded, "he's a great American."
I met Mr. Franklin on another occasion, at a discussion (with co-author Loren Scheninger) he gave at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh about his new book, In Search of the Promised Land. He remembered not only me, but the name of the hotel where we had breakfast. I felt honored to once again be in his presence.
I will never forget meeting John Hope Franklin. When he died in 2009 at the age of 94, I was living and working in Tarboro, NC and was unable to attend his memorial service. It was held at Duke Chapel on June 11, 2009, a date chosen by Mr. Franklin because it would have marked the 67th wedding anniversary to his wife, Aurelia. The two hour service, attended by hundreds, was recorded by WRAL. Former President Bill Clinton closed the service by sharing memories of his friend.
The honors bestowed on Mr. Frankin compile a long list, among them, a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his book on George Washington Williams, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. However, I can't help but wonder if he considered his biggest honor the building of the John Hope Franklin Institute for Inter-disciplinary Studies at Duke.
Two years ago, I moved to Durham and paid weekly visits to this place for nearly six months. The "noon seminars" there attracted a large audience who enjoyed presentations by scholars from Duke and beyond. One of the most memorable was an appearance by Mr. Franklin's son and daughter-in-law, John Whittington Franklin and Karen Roberts Franklin. John Whittington Franklin is director of Partnerships and International Programs at the Smithsonian's Museum of African American History and Culture.
Whenever I visit the John Hope Franklin Center at the corner of Erwin and I'm greeted by this portrait and am always reminded of the time I met him.
Memorial Service for John Hope http://www.wral.com/news/video/5332077/
A Celebration of the Lives of Aurelia and John Hope Franklin http://www.unctv.org/content/johnhopefranklin