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In your, again, in the essay \"A Life of Learning,\" you mention, you say that you found great, sort of, traumatic and personal embarrassment about the Depression that you've carried with you in your life. Can you tell me, describe what that feeling is and, and what you took away from it, and how it's affected your life, how the Depression has affected your life?
Well, I suppose that the first real trauma of the, of the Depression came from the fact that my father was a lawyer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and had a clientele which was either all black or nearly all black. And they were, while he was a popular lawyer with lots of business, they were unable to pay him, because they were unemployed for the most part, or certainly they didn't have any substantial attorney's fee to offer for the services which he performed. And so I, I began to see my father as really as what I thought was a poor businessman. We don't have much. Why don't we? He's busy all the time. These aren't paying him. And one of the reasons I wanted to become a lawyer and go back and practice law with my father was to make him a success, that is, that I would know how to get the money out of these people. And, in that, in that way he would be fulfilled in the way that I thought he deserved to be. I didn't realize the depth of the Depression, and I don't think I realized it until I got in college. I graduated from Fisk, from Booker T. Washington high school when I was sixteen, and went on to Fisk while I was still sixteen. And during that first year I worked, but that was, that didn't bother me. And I realized that I had to work in order to help with my fees and so forth. But then at the end of that year, that first year in college, my brother, who had graduated from Fisk two years before, and who was now teaching in, back in Tulsa County, came for my sister and me. We were both freshmen together. She, we were born just thirteen months apart. Came for my sister and me in my father's automobile. That didn't strike me as odd, although I later learned that he came to me so that he could transport us both back to Tulsa for less than the railroad fare for two people would be. But when we got to Tulsa, we didn't go in the direction that I knew our home was, and instead he turned the other street, and finally got to a street where I knew that my father had built a small four-family flat, an apartment. And he stopped in front of this place. And I said, \"What are you stopping for?\" He said, \"This is where we live.\" My father had lost our home. And when he had the option of losing our home or losing that piece of property, part of which was income property, he decided to give up the home, live in part of that apartment building, and rent out the rest of it. is impossible for me to tell you how, what a remarkable impact that had on me in, in the way, in a manner of depressing me and of disappointing me, and of feeling really homeless. And it caused me to have an attitude toward money, toward thrift and that sort of thing which I don't believe I would have had otherwise. And although I had no way of asserting it then, I was determined that I would remain, shall we say, solvent for the remainder of my life if I possibly could. That explains my attitude towards credit cards and [unintelligible]. It explains my feeling that if I can't afford to purchase something, I shouldn't purchase it. It explains my desperate attempt in every instance where I have purchased a home to pay for it as rapidly as possible so that I won't be evicted. This, this notion of being evicted was always with me, you see. And I never, I never shall forget when we were purchasing our home in Chicago, whenever I got any extra money, I would double up the payments. And a great day of freedom came when I made the last payment on that house, you see.
OK. How old were you, going back again to your childhood, back to the memoir, how old were you when you first as a child, or whenever you were, how old were you when you first saw a white school? I assume you went to black schools. When you first saw a white school, and you saw the difference between where you went to school and what they did, what was your reaction?
Well, you see, I grew up in all black town until I was ten years. And obviously I didn't see a white school in that period of time. We would go to a small town, Checotah, to shop, or we would go to Muskogee, where I had my first encounter with an eye specialist. When I was five years old. I began to wear glasses. But I didn't, I don't remember seeing any white schools at that time. It was after I went to Tulsa when I was ten years old that I saw the difference between Booker T. Washington High School where I went—it was a comprehensive school, they called it a high school because, but, but from the elementary, it was K-12—that, the difference between that school and Central High, which was the white school, was almost the difference between night and day. And I saw Central High shortly after I moved to Tulsa, so that I would say I was ten or eleven at the time, I saw that white children had certain kinds of certain kinds of facilities for education, and blacks had certain other, quite inferior, kinds of facilities for their education.
OK. Can you cut for a second, Michael?
OK. Want to tell me about that first incident?
When I went to Nashville as a freshman to attend Fisk University in 1931, I had a searing racial experience which remained with me for the rest of my life. And that was when I went into town, the city of Nashville, on the street car and did some shopping. When I got ready to return to the campus, I went to the transfer station, where one got, changed his money, one got a ticket. And I had only a twenty dollar bill. And I said to the ticket, the man in the ticket window that, \"I'm sorry I have only a twenty dollar bill. You can give it back to me, you can give me change in ones or whatever.\" And he says, \"Listen. No nigger is going to ever tell me how to make change! Now you remember that.\" And with that, he gave me the nineteen-plus dollars in nickels and dimes. And I walked away from there realizing that this, that I would have to avoid, as much as possible, any brushes or contacts with people like that one. And so it certainly did have a lot to do with my going into town as infrequently as I possibly could, because I wanted to avoid him and all people like him.
Nice. Great.
So, what happened to...his name's Cordie Cheek, right?
When I was a senior at Fisk, and was president of the student government there, a young teenager living in a home very near the campus, owned by the university the house was, but he was not connected with Fisk himself, was riding his bicycle and struck a white child. Did not kill the child, but struck the white child. And the town became enraged that this would happen. And he was taken, literally taken away from his house one day by a mob, and taken to the edge of the city and lynched. When word got back that that had happened, the campus was ablaze with fury, not only that a black child had been lynched for no good reason at all, but that he'd been taken really from the Fisk campus, as it were. And the result was that the students were up in arms and immediately began to demand that there be some kind of expression of resentment and outrage at this travesty.
So, we'd better cut for a second, because I'm [inaudible]
One of the things that the students did immediately was to hold a mass meeting, at which time they discussed what they should do. Interestingly enough, at that mass meeting Mrs. James Weldon Johnson was present and suggested that we ought to do what they did in 1917, that is, to protest lynching, namely, to have a march, a silent protest parade. In the case of 1917, it was down Fifth Avenue, but now through downtown Nashville. That was knocked around, but it was discarded. But we did decide that we would present a petition to the President of the United States, who was coming through Nashville, visiting Fisk University, on his way to Warm Springs, Georgia, in November 1934. So, as president of the student government, I began to get this petition together. It disturbed the president of Fisk University that we would do this to the guest of the university, namely the President of the United States. So he persuaded us to desist from that, and assured us that if we did not try to present the president with a petition when he was on Fisk's campus, then he would see to it that we got a chance to visit the president at Warm Springs, Georgia, and present him with a petition there asking him to speak out against lynching and asking him to support an anti-lynching bill. We bought this suggestion, and as a result, several hours, we went to Warm, went to Atlanta, Georgia, where we were, were to await word when we could go to Warm Springs, Georgia. That word never came, and I think the contact probably was never made with the president.
Yes. In your memoirs, again, we talked about this earlier, the, the incident in Cambridge, at Harvard, at the Henry Adams club.
Oh yes.
This was your first contact—you called it the most traumatic, your most traumatic social experience at Harvard. Can you describe what that was, and how that came about, and how it affected you?
The most traumatic social experience that I had during my years of graduate study at Harvard University came really in the, at—toward the end of the first year of my graduate work. I was a member of the Henry Adams Club, the club of students of American history, and we were getting ready to elect officers for the following year. I was placed on the nominating committee. I suppose that would take care of me, because one didn't nominate anyone from the nominating committee. But then, when the question arose \"Whom should we have for president?\" a certain brilliant, extraordinary, outstanding student was suggested by me. I said, \"It's obvious whom we should have!\" and I named him. And the members of the committee looked at each other, and then one of them said that, \"Well, to be sure, he does not have all of the objectionable characteristics of Jews, but he's a Jew.\" Well, I'd never experienced anything even resembling or suggesting that. I did not know what they were talking about. I'd never thought about this person as Jewish. And if I had, I wouldn't have known what that meant, except that he perhaps was, belonged to a religion that was Jewish. So all of these overtones of \"objectionable characteristics\" and so forth simply flew in the face of me. And it was, I took it personally, because I had made the judgment that this was the outstanding student at Harvard in American history, and that he deserved this recognition. And why shouldn't he be commended? And I wrestled with that. I think I wrestled with that so much within myself, trying merely to understand what they were talking about, that I, I really lost track of the main problem, namely of getting a president for the Henry Adams Club. I'll remember that for the rest of my life. I'd like to say that those so-and-sos, those others, some of them didn't ever get through their graduate work, either. [laughs]
Cut for a second, for a moment.
So, from a personal standpoint, in Tulsa—
Tulsa was one of the most segregated cities that one can even imagine. Not only were blacks and whites separated, but, institution-wise, from every conceivably way, not only in churches, not only in schools, but also the entertainment was entirely separate. In most cities, Nashville, for example, you have segregated parts of a movie house, you see. Blacks could go up in the gallery or over the side. But not in, not in Tulsa. You didn't go to the same movie houses. So there were two motion picture houses that blacks attended in the black part of town that whites did not go to. One was owned, by the way, by a white man. The other was owned by a black man. Not only did we see movies at these theaters, but we saw live shows, vaudeville shows, people being brought in one, for one night stands and that sort of thing. The Nicholas Brothers and Whitman Sisters and what, all the rest of it. It was, it was really quite something. They did not play in Tulsa at the white places. They simply went on through. One had the feeling as one looked at these shows, one had the feeling that these people were really very good. They were talented. They were stars. And we liked that. The, of course, the motion pictures that we saw were, all of them that I can remember, motion pictures of whites, primarily whites. There might be a white character here or there in some servile role. But, but we didn't see, I didn't see a motion picture by or for blacks at when I was growing up at all. There was, of course the motion picture industry was not interested in, in that. And so aside from a few black motion picture producers about whom I was to hear later, aside from them, there simply was not the opportunity. And so we grew up going to the movies, seeing cowboys shows and the like, and seeing these live vaudeville musical shows. That's, that's what the entertainment was.
So, the white people, the white people, though, what would they see? What image would they have, if any, of black, of black people at that time? Again, think about the 30s.
I, I would suppose that their, their image was, was enlarged from these minor roles that these blacks had. I can remember very well being in downtown Tulsa, white Tulsa, and being asked by some white man, said, \"I'll give you a quarter if you'll dance,\" you see. I was, of course, I, I ignored him, I just didn't even stop to, to talk with him about it, because I was simply of, of the type. But he must've got that impression from somewhere, some, some experience, either—
—on the silver screen, so to speak, or in his personal experiences. He thought blacks were enterainers, all blacks could entertain, all blacks could dance, I suppose he thought. And thus he would approach me. I suppose that's the best I can envision of what they experienced as—
OK. We've just run out of film. We got, we got, we got—good.
The Great Depression
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Interview with John Hope Franklin. Part 1
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Interview with John Hope Franklin for the Great Depression.
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Interviewee: Franklin, John Hope
Interviewer: Stept, Stephen
Producing Organization: Blackside, Inc.
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Chicago: “The Great Depression; Interview with John Hope Franklin. Part 1,” Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 12, 2024,
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