As one dignitary put it, highways can serve as an economic engine, and they can divide a neighborhood. Highways, however, can also honor a highly respected historian.
That’s what the state and city/county of Durham did Monday when a stretch of Interstate 85 from Cole Mill Road to the U.S. 70 Bypass was named the Dr. John H. Franklin Highway.
“There could be no better person to highlight and to hold up as an example, not just of someone who’s just great intellectual, a great leader, but someone who has something incredibly important to say to us about the future,” Anthony Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte and former U.S. transportation secretary, told a crowd at the Hayti Heritage Center during Monday’s dedication ceremony.
Foxx initiated the naming of the highway while he was transportation secretary in the Obama administration.
Gov. Roy Cooper also spoke during the ceremony. He said Franklin, who was appointed the James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke in 1983, laid the groundwork for Cooper’s mission statement as governor. At the end of his term, Cooper said he wants North Carolinians to be better educated with more money and “more opportunity to live a more abundant and purposeful life.”
Cooper said Franklin, who died in 2009, elevated the experience of black Americans “into the fabric of our society.”
“He knew difference between history and advocacy, but he knew history could be a catalyst,” Cooper said.
Cooper noted Franklin’s work played an important role in the landmark Supreme Court decision of Brown V. Board of Education, which ruled state laws that establish separate public schools for black and white children were unconstitutional.
“John Hope Franklin defined the civil rights movement,” Cooper said.
The historian’s work includes his 1947 book, "From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans," which is still considered the definitive account of the black experience in America. Franklin joined protestors in a 1965 march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Ala., and headed President Clinton's 1997 national advisory board on race.
Cooper said Franklin’s work forged “an unbreakable bond” between history and advocacy that has helped change the fight against racism.
Franklin’s son, John W. Franklin, shared stories about the racism he and his parents encountered while traveling in the South. But, he said, the construction of major highways such as I-85 made travel “much easier for all of us, even though it changed the landscape for all of us.”
Richard Powell, dean of the humanities at Duke and the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art & Art History, spoke about the significance of highways in Franklin’s research, which helped slaves escape and “liberate themselves.”
“For Professor Franklin, the road was not a hallucinatory Jack Kerouac, Beat Generation metaphor for freedom, it was the African-American’s conduit to a new life, to reestablish bonds of affection, to economic prosperity,” Powell said, “and to find a way out of no way.”