A day of art, history, and political dialogue marked the inaugural John Hope Franklin Memorial Day at Brooklyn College on Feb. 28. Sponsored by the Department of History, the Office of the President, the Ethyle R. Wolfe Institute for Humanities, the Department of Africana Studies, and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, the festivities were designed to commemorate the renowned historian, who in 1956, became the first African American to chair a history department at a primarily white academic institution—a feat which earned him both the front page and a feature in The New York Times.
The event was part of President Michelle J. Anderson‘s We Stand Against Hate initiative, developed to enhance understanding and compassion at the college, and was made possible through the generous support of Kimberley Phillips-Boehm—author, trustee, and former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
The day began with opening remarks from Professor and Department of History Chair Gunja SenGupta, who read a message from Franklin’s son, John Whittington Franklin:
“My wife, Karen Roberts Franklin and I are honored that you have chosen to dedicate this day to my late father’s work at Brooklyn College. My father was honored for his scholarship, activism, and public service during his lifetime. He was awarded over 130 honorary degrees, the Spingarn Medal, and the Medal of Freedom, among many honors. My father enjoyed teaching at Brooklyn. He had never taught at a school where many of the students had known each other from elementary school through high school.”
SenGupta added, “Franklin believed that you can use scholarship to make a better society. When you understand that structures of oppression did not fall from the sky, but are man-made and developed historically, you can turn history into a strategy for change. Recent events have borne out Franklin’s case that we have not yet achieved a post-racial society. Now, more than ever, we need a courageous, activist history which dares to tell the truth free of euphemisms and obfuscations.”
The message was followed by A Different Beast, a play written by senior Ethan Scott Barnett, and directed by Africana Studies Professor Dale Byum. The production dramatized events surrounding the difficulty Franklin’s family experienced in obtaining housing in Brooklyn, due to racism, even after his appointment at Brooklyn College.
“My mother had dealt with similar struggles when she moved from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley in the late 1980s and Franklin’s story is no different,” said Barnett, who studies human rights and social justice in the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies Program. “A black man who is leading a department at a predominately white institution, and is able to get his photo and story on the cover of The New York Times, can’t get a house in a neighborhood close to his job. I felt like I would have been doing a disservice to Franklin, if I hadn’t made the topic of racial discrimination so prevalent [in my play].”
The program also included a conversation with the award-winning filmmaker Sam Pollard, preceded by a short screening of his latest film, Two Trains Runnin’; and two panel discussions. The first, New Directions in African American History: Slavery and Abolition, featured author and Rutgers University Professor Marisa J. Fuentes, and Manisha Sinha, Draper Chairperson in American History at the University of Connecticut. The keynote panel featured Paula Giddings, Guggenheim Fellow, author, and the Elizabeth A. Woodson Professor of Africana Studies at Smith College; David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of W.E.B. DuBois; and historian and Brooklyn College Foundation trustee Kimberley Phillips-Boehm.
Franklin’s book, From Slavery to Freedom, published in 1947, is considered by many to be the preeminent text on the history of black people in the United States and revolutionized American history by centering the experiences of African Americans.
By: Robert Jones, Jr.