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  • The Uses of Memoir in Writing HistoryOr, What I Learned About Autobiography from John Hope Franklin and August Meier
  • Kenneth R. Janken (bio)

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“Even when Walter White clearly exaggerated his heroism or his impact on the struggle for civil rights, his memoir still faithfully tracks the larger narrative of the depravity of white supremacy and the struggle against it by the NAACP.” NAACP lawyers at the trial of George Crawford, Loudon County, Virginia, 1933, the first NAACP case tried by African American attorneys. (L to R) Walter White, Charles Houston, James G. Tyson, Leon A. Ransom, and Edward P. Lovett. NAACP Records, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In 1989, I was a graduate student just beginning research on the life of the historian Rayford Logan. Perhaps best remembered for popularizing the phrase “the Nadir” to describe the trajectory of African Americans in the period between the end of Reconstruction and World War I, Logan (1897–1982) was a distinguished historian, Pan-Africanist, and civil rights innovator. A close associate of both Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. DuBois, an early patron of Langston Hughes, and lifelong friends with, among others, the great poet Sterling Brown and civil rights legal pioneer Charles Houston, Logan is better known to the wider public [End Page 128] for editing the 1944 collection of essays What the Negro Wants and authoring his 1954 classic The Negro in American Life and Thought. But he was also a prominent diplomatic historian who wrote prolifically on Haiti, the Caribbean, and Latin America, and on colonial Africa and the anti-colonial struggle. And as a politically engaged professor in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s at Virginia Union, Atlanta, and Howard Universities, he organized the first citizenship schools designed to help disfranchised African Americans navigate the considerable barriers to registering to vote. In the 1920s he was a leading organizer of the Pan-African Congress movement, and during wwii he was prominent in efforts to break down inequality in the military and defense industries and was centrally involved in negotiations with President Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802. Yet as a light-complexioned African American, he was also influenced by intra-racial color prejudice that manifested itself in both pernicious and idiosyncratic ways. For example, when the racial nomenclature began to change in the 1960s, he was known to terminate conversations—and even longterm friendships—when people used the word “black” to describe “Negroes.” His visceral reaction to “black” was often the first thing people who knew him commented upon when I interviewed them.1

In 1989, I had made my way to Durham, North Carolina, to interview John Hope Franklin, one of Logan’s close associates. Franklin was extremely generous with his time and related choice stories and keen analysis of Logan’s life and career. In this, my experience was not unique, as Franklin was unstinting with his time to all beginner scholars who requested it. At some point during lunch, Franklin asked me what else I would be doing while I was in the area. I had had it in the back of my head that I might visit the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina Libraries and look at the correspondence concerning the publication of Logan’s controversial 1944 book What the Negro Wants. (The book had created quite a storm in the white South because the contributors, all of whom were black and who together represented the widest range of opinion, declared that what the Negro wanted was the end of segregation. The publisher was unc Press, and then-director W. T Couch was scandalized; he tried to renege on the publication contract, and relented only when Logan threatened him with a lawsuit.) But, I told Dr. Franklin with cocky assurance, I did not think that it would be necessary to visit the archives, because I had already read about the publication controversy in a couple of other books and I was sure that I had the full story. Franklin shot me a look that exposed my foolishness: “But,” he intoned, “those are not primary sources!” Embarrassed, I mumbled something or other...


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pp. 128-136
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