John Shearer: John P. Franklin Was Civil Rights Pioneer At Indiana University

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 - by John Shearer

The late former Chattanooga City Commissioner and Vice Mayor John P. Franklin Sr.’s name resurfaced in the news on June 25 when the City Council building on Lindsay Street was named in his memory.


He was being recognized for his civic contributions and as the first black person elected in the days of the former City Commission form of government, when commissioners were chosen citywide.


Before his death in June 2018 at the age of 96, he had also been a longtime local educator and funeral home proprietor. 


While he became one of Chattanooga’s better-known citizens in the late 20th and early 21st centuries due to all his contributions and accomplishments, particularly as a black pioneer, he had one accomplishment that has received little notice.


In 1951, he received a master’s degree from Indiana University.

While that might not sound like a big accomplishment, he would not have been able to receive such a degree from the University of Tennessee, Georgia or Alabama or any other state or private college in the South at the time due to segregation.


And historically black colleges generally did not offer graduate degree programs, unless it was in a very specialized program like what existed at Meharry Medical College in Nashville.


I read about Mr. Franklin’s relation to Indiana last year in his obituary, and that made me curious to know more. Realizing I was taking an unrelated pleasure trip to Indiana earlier this month, I gathered a little information on him from the university and visited the old education building where he would have had classes.


In their database, Indiana lists simply that he received his master’s degree there in physical education, but his years of attendance are not known.


While many black students and others already working as teachers at that time attended graduate classes in the summers or may have also taken some correspondence courses, Mr. Franklin may not have even started teaching then.


His obituary said he initially attended Tuskegee Institute, and then went into the Army before getting a degree from Fisk University in Nashville in 1950 after working in the family funeral home business for a period. He had been encouraged and determined to complete his educational degree because his mother had been a longtime teacher in the Chattanooga city schools, the death notice said.


Since his degree from Indiana came a year later, he may have gone fulltime there after finishing at Fisk. And because Nashville is not an overly long distance from Indiana University, he may have heard about the graduate program in Bloomington while at Fisk.


Mr. Franklin’s daughter, Cheryl Franklin Key, said she was aware that he had gone to Indiana, but that neither she nor apparently her brother, John “Duke,” knew any details, since both were born well after he would have been an IU student.


Chuck Carney, the director of media relations for Indiana University, said that Indiana had a number of black students from the South attend graduate education programs there during that time period before and right after World War II. And the school is very proud of that legacy.


“It was really a lifeline for advancement for education,” Mr. Carney recalled, citing the previously mentioned lack of graduate programs at black colleges and the segregation in Southern colleges as factors. “It was an amazing thing IU was able to do.”


Mr. Carney was formerly the director of communications and media relations for the IU School of Education and wrote a story about that topic for the alumni magazine, Chalkboard, when the school celebrated its centennial in 2008.


He said officials had actually forgotten part of that legacy in recent years, but noticed that a number of black alumni of a certain age were showing up for school reunions.


At the time Mr. Franklin attended Indiana, teachers and preachers were often considered the most prominent and respected citizens in the black community in a city like Chattanooga due to the barriers for advancement in many other fields.


And Mr. Franklin must have felt a calling to get into education, even though, in contrast to many black Chattanoogans at that time with no such alternatives, he could enjoy a comfortable living working with the family’s funeral home business.


While details of his story as a graduate student at Indiana are apparently lost to history, it is obvious that going through the program no doubt took plenty of effort from him. Just getting up to Bloomington and back in the old pre-Interstate travel days – either by train or car -- was challenging enough. And the schoolwork no doubt required effort.


But the rewards were apparently great, too. Fellow black alum Lena Prewitt, who attended Indiana from Alabama and later worked for NASA, said of the experience in the 2008 magazine story, “The Southern culture robbed us of our dignity and of our self-esteem and our self-worth. Indiana restored my self-worth.”


While a number of mostly white colleges did offer graduate programs appealing to black students from the South and possibly elsewhere, Indiana was among the largest in the country for enrollment. This was probably due in part to the fact that Bloomington’s location in Southern Indiana was not far from many Southern states.


IU was not completely integrated in all areas by that time, but it was working hard to be under the popular school president, Dr. Herman B. Wells, historical research reveals.


It is not known if any other black Chattanooga educators from that time period were enrolled at Indiana, or exactly how Mr. Franklin learned of the program, other than possibly at Fisk. A spot check of the obituaries of a few other well-known black local educators found online did not reveal any who had also gone to Indiana.


Harry McKeldin Jr., who went through the undergraduate program at Knoxville College, had done graduate work at Columbia University in New York, another school that drew black students from the South and elsewhere.


Mr. Franklin would have been at Indiana at the time when Bill Garrett was the first black to play varsity basketball at a Big 10 school. He also graduated in 1951, so perhaps the two crossed paths or knew each other.


With some direction from Mr. Carney, I went by the old education building while visiting Indiana University. It is now the Bess Meshulam Simon Music Library and Recital Hall that is part of Indiana University’s acclaimed Jacobs School of Music.


The structure, which has been remodeled on the inside, had ceased being used by the education school about 1992, when a new facility was built, Mr. Carney said.


But a few reminders of the building’s past still come to life in a way as harmonious as the music played there, although in an architectural way. For example, the seemingly symmetrical building was built in 1937 and was a laboratory high school for a number of years, as an inscription and plaque, respectively, still note. The word, “Education,” is also still found over one side entrance.


In addition, a couple of education-related quotes are also present. They say “Education Shall Forever Be Encouraged,” a saying attributed to an Ordinance from 1787, and “Teachers Must Inspire As well As Instruct.” The latter is credited to early Indiana education pioneer Caleb Mills.


And inside is a simply gorgeous stairway hall with marble flooring of multi-colors, perhaps unintentionally symbolic of the education program that had integrated early on. A ring/seal apparently depicting symbols of the Zodiac also is embedded in the floor.


There is also some stonework lining the wall next to a stairway, where countless students, including probably Mr. Franklin, went up and down on the way to classes.


He was likely trying to ascend in a pioneering sort of social way, too.


He apparently succeeded, based on his later accomplishments that culminated with the recent renaming of the City Council building in his memory.

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