(Photo by Derek Anderson)

Originally posted on Duluth News Tribune

Considering that John Hope Franklin was a historian — or rather, very likely the leading historian in America until his death on Wednesday at age 94 — I’m embarrassed to say I can’t recall exactly when or where we met.

What I do remember, other than it was in Boston about a decade ago, is that the towering figure both physically and intellectually was nothing like I expected. Instead of a stentorian academic who could destroy my historical musings with a single word, he turned out to be affable, folksy and encouraging. It was an impression he gave to countless others.

“There was a quiet calmness in his voice that was a deep stability, even if it was just saying ‘hello,’ ” said Sister Edith Bogue of the College of St. Scholastica. “He was just somebody you would listen to and who would listen to you, somebody you would respect.”

Though later a college professor herself, Bogue first knew him simply as “John’s dad,” the father of a middle school and high school classmate at the University of Chicago Laboratory School in the 1960s.

“He was the type of parent you could talk to about what was going on in class,” she said. “He would listen as though it was equally important as what was going on his life.”

By then, the senior Franklin’s life already had made an impact on the world. Along with recording history — through his definitive work, “From Slavery to Freedom,” and many other books — he helped change history, contributing to the NAACP’s 1953-54 case in Brown v. Board of Education. As Thurgood Marshall prepared to argue that the then-prevailing doctrine of “separate but equal” was counter to Congress’ intent in the 14th Amendment, Franklin was tapped to find out what exactly Congress had intended nearly a century earlier.

“Answers to these questions required a knowledge … that few lawyers possessed,” Franklin wrote in “Mirror to America,” his 2005 autobiography. “Historians, to the rescue!”

Similarly, Franklin was participating in another turning point of civil rights history when Bogue frequented the family’s home in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.

“I remember watching the [1965] march from Selma to Montgomery [on television],” Bogue said. “His son John never said, that I remember, ‘my dad’s there, that’s why my dad’s not home,’ but he was.”

Franklin was quick to discount any notion that being a historian and an activist were mutually exclusive.

“I think knowing one’s history leads one to act in a more enlightened fashion,” he said in a 1994 magazine interview. “I cannot imagine how knowing one’s history would not urge one to be an activist.”

Three years later, in his 80s, that activism would lead to his most public role when President Clinton asked him to lead the President’s Initiative on Race, an effort criticized by some for talking too much about the subject and by others for talking too little about it. Two central themes were an official apology for slavery and reparations to slave descendants and those dehumanized by segregation — such as Franklin himself who, despite his Harvard Ph.D., dozens of esteemed professorships (the last at Duke University in North Carolina, where he died) and more than 100 honorary degrees, suffered many indignities.

“I learned our history through him,” Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, a protégé of Franklin’s and a mentor to President Barack Obama, said in a statement. “The 1921 Tulsa Race Riots caused his father, Buck Colbert Franklin, a lawyer in Tulsa, to have his office destroyed. Dr. Franklin overcame this setback. He is a legend.”

And a gentle, dignified, and personable one.

“He could just be with us and talk,” Bogue said.

Robin Washington is news director of the News Tribune. He may be reached at rwashington@duluthnews.com.