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A genius for friendship

John Hope Franklin had a genius for friendship. He was a wonderful raconteur, freely sharing his vast repository of experience, but he didn't dwell in the past. He was always right there, present in the living moment, with his acuity and vast curiosity fully engaged.

I treasure the memories of our many private conversations, but if I were to choose a single image of him, it would be a public one. John Hope agreed to be Duke's commencement speaker in the spring of 2006. Between his acceptance and the event itself, this city and campus were gripped with controversy with a racial dimension. How would the father of African American history speak on this occasion?

When the morning came, he neither played to divisive passions nor pretended they didn't exist. He both faced them and modelled a way beyond them. Standing before the crowds in Wallace Wade with his wonderfully erect posture, Franklin, then aged 91, projected an extraordinary air of physical strength, giving compelling reality to the idea of the dignity the individual as a human fact transcending social categories. He spoke eloquently, as he always did, but he was not a rhetorician. Instead he spoke directly about the history of race, his clear presentation of facts far more powerful than any attitudinizing moralism. In his talk, he evoked past realities no one could deny and a future everyone could help build. And while his talk was serious to the last degree, his eye never lacked its famous twinkle, the sign of his continual pleasure in the human spectacle.

John Hope and I both enjoyed the fact that, a year after he spoke at Duke, I was asked to be the commencement speaker at his undergraduate school, Fisk University. I knew Fisk's celebrated history as a training ground for black scholars and leaders and I had done a research project on the Fisk campus, so I knew my way around. But when I revisited Fisk in 2007, I got to see the place through the lens of John Hope's experience. From Mirror to America, which had only recently appeared, I learned that the racial violence of the deep segregation era had broken out on the edge of the Fisk campus during John Hope's undergraduate years. Against this backdrop of exclusion, discrimination, and physical menace, Fisk gave John Hope the chance to find himself and his way forward. In that place of discovery, in the 1930s, an unknown youth from Oklahoma found his way to the vocation of historian, and met the classmate who became his wife.

What a remarkable career he gave us. It puts me in mind of some words from Hamlet: "He was a man, take him for all in all/I shall not look upon his like again."

Richard Brodhead is the president of Duke University.


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