For more than 50 years, Dr. John Hope Franklin forged a career that ranged from helping Thurgood Marshall successfully challenge the “separate but equal laws” in the 1950s to heading up a Presidential advisory board on race relations in the 1990s.
The historian’s groundbreaking book, “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans,” is a staple of African American history courses around the world, and its author has personally taught thousands of students that a good way to solve the problems of the present is by studying those of the past.
That simple idea now forms the basis of the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies and the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University. Since opening two years ago, the center and its institute have brought together hundreds of scholars, students, and private citizens. By sponsoring year-long research programs, weekend seminars and hour-long discussions, the institute encourages its visitors to talk about, and try to find solutions for, some of the world’s most pressing problems.
“A few years ago I was part of a seminar on faculty development,” says Dr. Cathy N. Davidson, Duke’s vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, Ruth F. Devarney professor of English, and the institute’s cofounder. “We found that many faculty members rarely go far from their own departments. So we looked at ways of getting people from various departments together to talk about what they were doing.”
Dr. Karla Holloway, dean of the university’s humanities and social sciences department and William R. Kenan professor of English, joined Cathy on the project. The two set about finding a permanent place to hold the eclectic gatherings. “We heard about this old dorm which had been empty for about 10 years,” Cathy remembers. “It was pretty run-down, but it had good bones. As I walked through it, I knew we’d found a home.”
After a $3 million renovation, the Franklin Center opened with an excitement usually reserved for Duke basketball games. “We had an open house on a Sunday afternoon and hundreds of people came from all over Durham,” Cathy says. “It was amazing. Dr. Franklin stayed until ten o’clock that night, talking to people and signing autographs for kids. Here’s this scholar, and you would have thought from the crowd that he was a movie star.”
Like its namesake, the center works to combine college and community. “Dr. Franklin always taught that an intellectual life should also include a social commitment, and that’s what we try to do,” Cathy explains. “We have five community outreach programs going on right now. We’re all over the place.”
Students from a nearby junior high sharpen their research skills through internships at the center, and professors help local teachers develop African American study programs for their high schools. “We want people to be so interested in what their neighbors are doing next door that they visit them and find out,” Karla says.
The rambling brick building serves as home to more than 20 university programs as well as the humanities institute.
“As part of the institute’s work, faculty members and graduate students can spend an academic year here working on projects,” Karla says. “When we first opened some people said they didn’t want to come all the way across campus to work. Now we have a hard time getting them to leave when they are finished.”
In addition to sponsoring the long-term projects, the institute also brings in experts from all over campus and the world for weekend seminars and hour-long “Wednesday conversations.” Topics of the weekly lunchtime chats range from the role genetics plays in determining our senses of taste and smell to the growing popularity of Latino music.
Richenel Ansano, the institute’s associate director, coordinates the dozens of academic events. “We recently held a seminar where a professor of genetics and an ethicist talked about the ethical challenges of the human genome project,” Richenel says. “There are about 40 humanities institutes across the country, but most of them only organize one seminar or lecture series a year. Because we’re part of the much larger Franklin Center, we’re able to develop programs on a much more ambitious scale.”
Although Dr. Franklin left last year to work on his autobiography, his presence and determination are still felt in the center.
“He has an office here,” Karla says. “We currently have a visiting professor from Harvard who is working on a project at Duke, and she is a dear friend of Professor Franklin’s. We asked him if she could use his office, and he said that he wouldn’t have it any other way-there’s still too much work left to be done.”