Today, a portrait of John Hope Franklin, noted historian and civil rights activist, was added to the collection of 100-plus works of art that adorn the Oklahoma capitol building. The only other public portrait of the man hangs in the Gothic Reading Room at Duke University, where he was a professor of legal history at the college of law.
New York City artist Everett Raymond Kinstler, who counts seven U.S. presidents—including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—as his subjects, painted Franklin’s portrait. The project was spearheaded by Robert Henry, president of Oklahoma City University, and William G. Kerr, who gathered private donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations to pay for the commission. No taxpayer funds were spent on the project, though Col. Stanley Evans, assistant dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Law, who presented opening remarks at today’s public dedication ceremony, said that many projects at the state capitol come from tax funds.
“This project came at no expense to the state because you unofficial leaders of the state chose to step up,” he said.
Evans lauded Franklin for being a “civil rights superstar” who “changed the way people think about race relations.”
Robert Henry called the event a “historic occasion” and said, “Each of you who are here is part of Oklahoma history. You are witnessing the laying of a cornerstone that will cause thousands of school children to have to learn about John Hope Franklin and the injustices he righted.”
Franklin was born in Rentiesville, Oklahoma, and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa. His father, Buck Colbert Franklin, an attorney, was a survivor of the 1921 Race Riot. His book From Slavery to Freedom, which was first published in 1947 and has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide, is widely considered the defining text on African American history.
Kinstler said he initially turned down the opportunity to paint Franklin’s portrait because he “didn’t want to take on a posthumous portrait.” But he recognized Franklin’s name from a TV program he’d seen recently and, after reading his autobiography, Mirror to America, he was “deeply moved and touched” and agreed to the project. He said he wanted to paint a portrait that “wasn’t too stuffy and formal—something people would look at and say, ‘I want to get to know that man.’”
“I hope you like what I’ve come up with,” Kinstler said. “I hope I’ve done you justice.”
Richard Ellwanger, chair of the State Capitol Preservation Commission, in accepting the portrait, said 18,000 school children visit the building annually, and that the “life and legacy of John Hope Franklin will help define who we are as a state and a nation.”
A few months prior to his death in 2009, Franklin made one of his last public appearances during the groundbreaking of the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in downtown Tulsa. Reflecting on his life, he noted that he “would like [his] students to take up where [he] left off and to carry on the fight to establish history as a powerful force for good—a constructive force to rectify the ills of our society—to change the world, as it were.”
At the same time the ceremony was coming to a close, with an Oklahoma City gospel group, Generation Blessed, belting out “We Shall Overcome,” in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Institution—along with President Barack Obama—was breaking ground on its 19th museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to be located adjacent to the Washington Monument. Franklin served as the founding chairman of the museum’s scholarly advisory committee, charged with helping “shape its intellectual agenda, exhibition content and programming,” from 2005 to 2009. Franklin’s son, John W. Franklin, a program manager and curator at the Smithsonian, wasn’t at the portrait dedication because of the groundbreaking, but he wrote a letter to the audience in Oklahoma City, which Henry read, and which said that John Hope Franklin’s spirit was in both places.
Franklin’s portrait will hang in the second-floor rotunda, in front of the glass doors leading to the Court of Criminal Appeals (on either side of those doors hang portraits of Te Ata and Sam Walton) for the time being. Representatives couldn’t say if that would be the painting’s permanent location.
Coincidentally, the Oklahoma capitol was featured in a USA Today article this week that noted “10 great places to walk through history at state capitols.” Its murals were included as a reason for the Oklahoma building’s appeal.
—Holly Wall, News Editor