John Shearer: Looking Back At John Franklin’s Early Life And Career

Sunday, June 24, 2018

East Tennessee and Chattanooga have lost several giants in recent days.

They include former City Commissioner John Franklin, former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, retired Circuit Court Judge Bob Summitt, and Tennessee Vols football and basketball announcer John Ward.

As has been noted in various media reports, all four contributed much to this part of the country through their abilities and achievements, and what they gave back to society.

Out of curiosity, I thought it would be neat to go back and learn a little more about the life of Commissioner John Franklin before he was elected as the first black city commissioner in 1971, when commissioners were elected at large.

With the help primarily of a 1971 article I found written by Charles Pennington, the former Chattanooga Times reporter known for his fact-filled newspaper profiles written in the mid-20th century, I learned a lot.

Born in Chattanooga on April 26, 1922, he was the youngest of five children of pioneering black funeral home owner G.W. and Rosalie Franklin. His father died when John was only 6, and his mother taught school for many years in Chattanooga before remarrying and moving to Charleston, S.C.

The future commissioner grew up in the Fort Wood area and went to East Fifth Street School and later Howard High. He loved such sports as sandlot baseball and football and was a Boy Scout, who achieved the Star badge, the second highest award behind being an Eagle Scout.

As he told Mr. Pennington, scouting meant a lot to him as a young man without a father. He even learned to swim through scouting, and beginning in the 1950s, he enjoyed family vacations swimming in the ocean at Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

Another sport he loved was football, but he was too small to play at Howard in the coach’s eye.

As a schoolteacher, his mother believed in the value of an education, and she wanted him to go to college. This was even truer at that time in the black community, when fewer opportunities to enjoy professional work were available. So he enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute and studied to be an electrician for two years, supporting himself by working as a custodian in the college chapel.

In 1942, he entered the Army to serve his country at Camp Forrest near Tullahoma, and trained at Fort Benning in Georgia and in Arizona, where he served as a clerk typist with an artillery unit.

He then likely used his Tuskegee studies to work in artillery and ordnance repair and maintenance.

After he had entered the Army, he began growing physically, and that would help him finally realize his dream to one day play football.

As did all soldiers, he also grew a little mentally and emotionally in the service, too.

After the training, Mr. Franklin traveled to the South Pacific and landed on islands often after an Allied invasion to make sure guns were working properly. At night, he and his fellow soldiers had to sleep under mosquito nets to avoid malaria.

They were watching a movie in the Philippines when they received word that the Japanese had surrendered.

On Christmas Eve 1945, he and his fellow soldiers began the long journey via ship home. Like the civil rights struggle for all Americans that would start to be realized through a long process beginning in the late 1940s, the trip home was long and slow but sure.

After his return, he worked for a while in the funeral home business still operated by his family, but he wanted to finish college. So he used the GI Bill to go to Fisk University in Nashville after considering Tennessee State and the Gupton Jones mortuary school.

He actually entered as a freshman, and, yes, was able to play football and letter for four years as an end.

Mr. Franklin initially thought about studying dentistry, but he soon decided he wanted to pull on hearts instead of teeth by majoring in physical education and getting into teaching to influence young lives in a positive way.

During at least one summer at Fisk, he and some classmates got some jobs on Great Lakes passenger ships. He worked as a night porter before being promoted to dining room bus boy.

But he did not blend into the background, as was often the case in those days, because he was part of a singing quartet who entertained the passengers.

Another summer he worked on the Sante Fe Railroad.

The future health and education commissioner then took it one step further and went to Indiana University to receive a master’s degree in 1951 in health and education in those days when Southern state universities were still closed to black students. Whether he was then or later a Hoosier basketball fan – particularly in the glory days of coach Bobby Knight -- would have been neat to learn.

The worldly traveler then came back and helped his sister and sister-in-law run the funeral home. About that time, they formed a partnership with Reuben Strickland and Fred Reynolds and changed the name to Franklin-Strickland.

He still had an urge to get into education, so he was hired as a teacher and coach at the old Orchard Knob Junior High, before the current one near Holtzclaw Avenue was built in the early 1960s.

He evidently showed a lot of natural leadership in his quietly charismatic way, because two years later, he headed the physical education program for black schools under Bob Matusek in the still-segregated city school system.

After that was discontinued, he became an itinerant reading teacher, working with other teachers to establish basic reading programs.

In the late 1950s, he had married Eva Mann, an itinerant librarian in the city school system. They had two children, Cheryl and John “Duke,” a fellow gifted singer, who went on to serve on the revamped Chattanooga City Council but resigned in 2008 after an arrest that resulted in a federal obstruction of justice plea and probation.

In 1960, the elder Mr. Franklin was named principal of W.J. Davenport School, and the next year became principal at Alton Park Junior High, where he remained until 1971.

That January, he decided to embark on quite a dream. The world had drastically changed over the last 10 years in the area of civil rights, even if prejudices still remained to some extent, so he took a leave of absence to run for commissioner of health and education.

Longtime Howard football coach Chubby James had also considered running, but everyone in the black community decided to support Mr. Franklin, who said he decided to run after being urged by others.

Dean Petersen, a white man who had come from being a local coach and principal and school official as well to serving as the commissioner since 1959, was running for re-election for a fourth term. The issues of the time would require further research to unveil, but many must have seen Mr. Petersen as vulnerable.
During the city election on March 16, 1971 – an election in which attorney Robert Kirk Walker was elected as mayor – Mr. Franklin received 15,216 votes to Mr. Petersen’s 14,393. Dr. Robert McAuley was a distant third at 1,474.
However, because he did not get more than 50 percent of the vote, Mr. Franklin and Mr. Petersen had to be in a runoff.
One interesting point Mr. Franklin made during the campaign was that whites needed to live in the city’s core. In the early 21st century, that has come true with so many people wanting to live back near downtown.
When the runoff election was held on April 13, Mr. Franklin finally made history as the first and only black ever elected to a commissioner’s post in the citywide election. And he did it in sterling fashion, increasing his lead over Mr. Petersen from 823 votes in the general election to 1,857 in the runoff.
He even received more votes than did Gene Roberts, the future longtime mayor, who was being elected to public office for the first time as well as fire and police commissioner.
What was interesting was that Mr. Franklin not only won overwhelmingly in the black wards and precincts, but he also surprisingly received about 40 percent of the votes in such predominantly white precincts as Missionary Ridge and Riverview.
Chattanooga was a city on the road to change, and Mr. Franklin – who at the time lived at 4007 Midland Pike off Talley Road in Brainerd -- was there to lead it.
Within a few weeks after that term began, his unique perspective was needed, as one of the worst racial protests in the city’s history took place for several days after singer Wilson Pickett refused to take the stage at Memorial Auditorium before he was paid.
The black protesters wanted to not only see that show, but also the seemingly elusive one in which everyone had a place at the table of equality.
According to Mr. Pennington’s article, Mr. Franklin and the fellow city commissioners worked as one, despite their differing skin colors, to calm the situation that dealt very much with race.
In his publicly quiet way, Mr. Franklin would continue to serve admirably as well, accounts say. He went on to be easily elected or unopposed four more times and would serve until the changeover to the City Council form of government in 1990.
He later continued in funeral home work and enjoyed several honors in recent years, including the Chattanooga History Center’s History Maker Award in 2014 and the Kiwanis Club of Chattanooga’s very prestigious Distinguished Service Award in early 2016.
On Thursday, June 21, 2018, his long life of service and recognition finally came to an end at the age of 96.
Mr. Franklin had traveled far as a young man while a student and Army soldier, and he traveled proverbially even further as an adult in his hometown with his unique political accomplishment, despite the big initial hurdles.
And he apparently did it all as a gentleman.


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