Mar. 1, 1999
Volume 51, No. 22
Davis unearths forgotten 'race man' Hope in biography
Many people are familiar with John Hope Franklin, the eminent historian who chaired President Bill Clinton's initiative on race. Few know the man he's named for, John Hope, the Augusta-born president of both Morehouse College and Atlanta University and contemporary of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.
Here in Atlanta, Hope's name appears on a downtown elementary school and a public housing project on the verge of extinction, but like many others whose names label city streets and grace public buildings, his contributions have been mostly forgotten, eclipsed by brighter Atlanta "stars" who haunt more recent memory.
Associate Professor of History Leroy Davis has written the recently published book, A Clashing of the Soul, that shows how Hope fundamentally changed Atlanta and the course of higher education for black Americans and how he, the product of an interracial union, typified African American "race leaders" after the Civil War.
"John Hope meant to the development of black college education in the United States what Booker T. Washington meant to the development of black vocational or industrial education," Davis said. "Until the 1920s the general position in America was that African Americans had no need to have a college education, given their role in the Southern political economy."
As Northern philanthropists such as the Slater and Rosenwald Funds and the Rockefeller-controlled General Education Board pushed the goal of education for American blacks, they wanted Hope to pave the way, Davis said. "They clearly looked to him as a person who would have a tremendous amount of influence on the curriculum in black colleges, what kind of teachers would be produced, what kind of leadership would come out of them. So it is really Hope who becomes the individual who sets the stage for the acceptance of black college education in the United States."
With his good friend DuBois, Hope prided himself as being one of the more radical black leaders in the early part of the 20th century. But he began to believe that moderating his "militant" stance and pushing for what blacks realistically could achieve within the bounds of the segregated system was a better course--an ideology for which Booker T. Washington had been resoundingly criticized in his lifetime. Hope, DuBois and others pushed for equal facilities within the segregated system "because that's the best they could hope for," Davis said. "We're talking about a period when the idea of integrating institutions was not even on the table."
For Davis, Hope's work and accomplishments are important to examine, but equally important is how the educator personified the nature of interactions inside the black community--a multilayered, complex milieu where relationships and power played out along class and gender lines, region and, sometimes, skin hue.
"We've tended to only look at what we now call the 'race relations paradigm,'" said Davis. "And that is the history of black folk being the history of interactions with people outside the racial group. And to me that's only one component of the black experience. We need also to understand what has been the nature of our interactions within the group." Hope's life was a testament to many of these "intra-racial" dynamics.
Peering from behind rimless spectacles on the cover of Davis' book, Hope could easily be mistaken for one of the white philanthropists who often sought his advice. His wavy gray hair and light-colored eyes are a direct result of his interracial ancestry--both his maternal grandmother and mother bore the children of white men. Hope's mother and his father, a wealthy Augusta businessman, lived openly together, and his mother's legacy as a freed black gave Hope a place of prominence in the black community.
Despite his Caucasian appearance and lineage, Hope lived his life proudly and resolutely as a black man, confounding many of those he encountered. Retiring by nature, Hope took to telling white people he was a "colored man" upon introduction, before they might make racial slurs or slights in his presence.
Two of his sisters moved away from Augusta and "passed" for white, and many wondered why Hope didn't do the same, but that wasn't as appealing an option as some might think, Davis said, despite the oppressive nature of segregation. "John Hope's father was a white man, but [Hope] was socialized in the black community," Davis said. "For a person who is socialized in a particular community, with all of his friends, all of his associations, to give up everything, to give up family, all ways of knowing and understanding, that is a major move that most people are not going to make."
Despite being well known and well regarded in his lifetime, Hope is today one of the least known African American leaders, Davis said, principally because historians tend to leave the topic of blacks in the South after Washington's death and return only with the advent of the civil rights movement. But it was African American leaders such as Hope, with his pursuit of quality education, housing and health care for blacks, who helped pave a critical path toward that historic movement.