Monday, August 6, 2007

The Mis-Education of the Negro: 2007 Style

Don’t get me wrong. I love John Hope Franklin. In fact, it was his work along with the late C. Eric Lincoln that led me to come to Durham to attend graduate school at Duke University. I’ll never forget the class I took at the University of Missouri that exposed me to his work. Arvil Strickland used his book From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans in his African American history class. Franklin wrote that classic book in 1947. That’s a long time ago.

Franklin is old. He was born on January 2, 1915, making him 92. You wouldn’t know it to see him walking around the city of Durham. The man is still teaching wherever he goes. Yes, I’m a big John Hope Franklin fan. That‘s why it hurts to bring an error printed about him to the attention of those who may have read it.

On Saturday, August 2, 2007, The News & Observer reported that Franklin is one of three winners of the 2007 Freedom Award, given by the National Civil Right Museum. No one should be shocked by that. Franklin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, the national highest civilian honor. Franklin has been appointed to serve on national commissions including the National Council of the Humanities, the President's Advisory Commission on Ambassadorial Appointments, and One America: The President's Initiative on Race. He is one of America’s who’s who. There are few who match his scholarship and community service.

With all of that being said, The News & Observer made a glaring mistake. The line read, “Franklin, an emeritus professor of history at Duke University, was the first African American accepted to Harvard University”. Opps. Someone should have taken Dr. Stricklands class at Mizzou. Someone should have read Dr. Franklins book. It’s sad that a man who has dedicated himself to teaching people African American history would be linked improperly to a part of that history.

Franklin was not the first African American to be accepted to Harvard. The truth is most people don’t know this little known fact in Black history. Yes, Franklin is old, but he isn’t old enough to have been the first to come out of Harvard. He’s not even the first to obtain a Ph.D. The answer to the first question-who was the first to be accepted-is a hard one to answer. The answer to the second-who was the first to obtain a Ph.D.-is one that all of you should know.

Let me answer the easy one first. W.E.B. Du Bois received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895. Franklin completed his work in 1941-46 years after Du Bois. That’s significant in that it brings attention to the amazing mind and contribution of Du Bois. Imagine what it must have taken for him to complete his work at Harvard in the midst of reconstruction. Du Bois received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard cum laude in 1890 after Harvard refused to acknowledge the bachelor’s degree he earned from Fisk University in 1888.

There’s an interesting connection between Franklin and Du Bois. The 1950’s were hard times for Du Bois. He was indicted in the United States under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. He was acquitted for lack of evidence. During that period, Franklin spoke out in defense of Du Bois, not for his reputed communism, but of the right of an intellectual to express ideas that were not popular.

The answer to the second question isn’t as easy. Richard Greener graduated from Harvard in 1870, making him the first African American to do so

Greener went on to earn a law degree and joined the faculty of Howard University Law School in 1877. Two years later he was appointed the school’s dean. He left Howard in 1881 to open a private practice and soon became known for defending victims of injustice and discrimination.

While in Washington, Greener became involved in national affairs. His friendship with Booker T. Washington pitted him against-guess who- W.E. B. Du Bois. Washington advocated training African American men for practical work in trades, while Du Bois embraced higher education, agitation and protest as a mean to obtaining racial equality. The African American leadership was split into factions over these views.

Greener became a spy for his friend Washington, attending meetings of the Niagara Movement, organized by Du Bois in 1905, and reporting back to Washington. When this was discovered, Greener found that both sides mistrusted and rejected him. Struggling to find a role in the movement, he retired to Chicago where he died alone in 1922.

Greener’s story is begging to be made into a motion picture. His wife left him in the 1890s and took their children to live in Princeton, NJ. Light-skinned and green-eyed, Mrs. Greener dropped the final “r” in the family name and her and the children began to pass as white.

Greener’s daughter, Belle da Costa Greene, was recognized as one of the most powerful women in the New York art and book world. In 1906, she was employed by J.P. Morgan to organize his collection of world famous rare books and manuscripts and later ran his museum and library.

J.P. Morgan left her $50,000 in his will, which at that time was a significant sum, reportedly $800,000 in modern money. Asked if she was Morgan's mistress, she is said to have replied, "We tried!"

That’s a lot of African American history that we fail to talk about. Sadly, many find it hard to believe there were African Americans smart enough to graduate from Harvard before the end of the 1800’s. Not true. The social scene is filled with wonderful connections- Franklin and Du Bos, Greener and Du Bois. It’s also interesting to note how African Americans struggled over the issue of race. For Greener it meant being rejected by his own people out of his desire to stand by his close friend. For his wife (they never divorced) and children it was about making a decision to pass for white.

So much African American history left to be told. It’s hard to get there when you don’t know the answer to the questions-who was the first to…..


  1. Hey Partner!

    Nice article in your blog...I loved the history and the perspective...keep up the good work!

    Your Friend,

    Steve the Kewpie

  2. Excellent scholarship Carl! But of course, I expected it. Did you tell the N & O of their error?

  3. This is so true....There were so many great players in the Negro League that Babe's record would have been shattered during his playing time if they had been counted in the actual statistics..I truly suspect that there are some 800 hitters among that group which means that Barry still has a way to go and that Hank never caught them.....

  4. What I meant to say about this one was that the historical perspective is very meaningful and so many of our true legends are giving the credit for the accolades they deserve..

  5. For those who have not had or made the time to read it...

    "The Mis-Education of the Negro" is now in audiobook format at

    sorry for the long link, it'll soon be

    name has to truncate...its a web thing


  6. The Mis-education of the Negro is the name of a really incredible book, and the edition with the link In this book, Carter Woodson discusses how the educational system of his day taught African Americans to want to be white, or to act like whites, rather than to be proud of their heritage and develop the gifts that are uniquely theirs. This book is a truly eye-opening look at what went wrong in schooling at the turn of the century, and gives many helpful suggestions which, if implemented, are sure to be of great use to educators today.