Before famed African-American historian John Hope Franklin passed away in March, he made it very clear that he didn’t want a sad, overwhelming memorial service. Instead, he petitioned his son John W. Franklin before his passing to organize a celebration where the people he loved and respected could come together to honor both he and his late wife, Aurelia Whittington Franklin. Had they both survived, they would be celebrating their 69th wedding anniversary today. A number of speakers, including former President Bill Clinton and civil rights leader Vernon Jordan are on hand today at Duke University to share their favorite stories about the man who was one of the country’s foremost leading historians. His only son, John spoke with ESSENCE.com about organizing this event, his parent’s legacy, and how he hopes they will always be remembered.
ESSENCE.com: Why did you decide to organize this event for your parents?
JOHN W. FRANKLIN: My father agreed to have a celebration if it was going to be for both he and my mother, who passed away 10 years ago. She didn’t want a service either. So my wife Karen and I thought that the best way to honor both of them was to chose their wedding anniversary, June 11 and bring people from different vantage points together who knew them over the course of their lives.
ESSENCE.com: Why do you think your father chose to be remembered in this way?
FRANKLIN: My parents were different from everybody else. I could never imagine them having a regular funeral. My father wasn’t a very religious person but we’re coming together today to talk about my parent’s commitment to service and engaging in the community. They were loved by so many kinds of people who have expressed an appreciation for their work. They were both so generous with their time. I think that is what made them so different. My father was always accessible and he wasn’t pretentious about it. So when you grow up with parents who believe in sharing themselves with other people, that’s the model you have for your own behavior.
ESSENCE.com: How does it feel to have former President Bill Clinton come by to speak about your dad?
FRANKLIN: My father advised three former presidents-Johnson, Carter and Clinton. He worked with Justice Thurgood Marshall. He didn’t work with them because they were well-known and powerful but because they were engaged in the work that needed to be done. So when Thurgood Marshall asked my father to serve on the team of historians to research segregation, Dad went up to New York every weekend from Washington to be a part of it.
ESSENCE.com: How would you like for your parents to be remembered?
FRANKLIN: My father once told me that the most powerful experience he had as a graduate student at Harvard in the 1930s was teaching adult, African-American men how to read. Satisfaction doesn’t come just from your family, faith community or work. Anyone can make a difference in their community by being involved.