James Franklin was sent a digital copy of a family photograph the other day, from his older sister Debbie.
Nearly three decades old, the photo is a bit grainy.
Otherwise, time has been kind to the family heirloom of a picture that Debbie emailed to her younger brother from her home in Langhorne, the same suburban Philadelphia town where the two of them grew up with their mother Josie.
The photo was of a family reunion. There were smiles all around and a tad bit of good-natured goofiness in the shot taken on the front porch of the white clapboard Battle family homestead in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
There’s Aunt Donna, Aunt LaWanda, cousin Greg, uncles William and Doc. And there’s Josie Franklin in a bright red blouse, her daughter Debbie looking away from the camera on her right, with her son James peeking over her shoulder to the left.
James, the youngest of the two children of Josie and James Franklin by six years, is meticulously (and still characteristically) coiffed, with an Afro he today proudly defines as “soft and floppy.”
“My sister kind of sent that to me out of nowhere the other day,” Franklin said.
Not nowhere. Rocky Mount. The town is located an hour east of Raleigh and about 140 miles to the west of Nags Head on the Carolina coast, with a population of about 56,000 these days -- only 10,000 more than 30 years ago. It’s not where James Franklin grew up, but it did help make him the man he is today and teach him the yesterdays of his family from over 150 years ago.
Franklin was on Penn State’s fourth annual Coaches Caravan trail earlier this week. At a midweek stop, he found himself surrounded by a small group of five, a friendly mix of Penn State PR folks and beat writers. He was talking passionately about his past, bringing laughter, a bit of awe and newfound understanding of a second-year Penn State coach who usually guards his private side.
JAMES VS. JIM
The conversation started with why he goes by “James” instead of “Jim.”
(Short answer: His dad was James Oliver Franklin, but went by Jim. His namesake and future football coach was born on Feb. 2, 1972, and was named James Geoffrey Franklin. When her son was still a youngster, his mother Josie didn’t want two Jims to come running when she called, so James he was.)
What followed was Franklin’s life with a single mom, spent in Philadelphia (Josie) and Pittsburgh (Jim); the influence of his many aunts, all divorced and well-educated despite their cotton-pickin’ childhood; and a family tree that has strong roots in Rocky Mount and then the Steel City.
“My great, great uncle Winstead came from Rocky Mount to Pittsburgh and was fairly successful,” Franklin said. “And as he would save up money he would send back for a family member.”
And so it went, in a seven-minute and 46-second monologue where Franklin let his hair down – metaphorically speaking -- and provided a peek into James’ early years, as well as his family’s.
“My aunt LeWanda, my aunt Romaine, my aunt Melbadene. …my grandma was Leoda – all my family came from Rocky Mount,” Franklin shared. “That’s really the people I grew up with. They were my dad’s cousins. They all came from this farm in Rocky Mount, picking cotton. We can actually trace my family on my dad’s side all the way back to the first free slave (in the family). We still have family property there, we still have a family cemetery there. The first were named Battle -- their original name – and they’re still buried on family property.”
That’s the same family property in the 1984 photo that pictured 12-year-old James Franklin peering out from behind his hip sister Debbie.
ROOTED IN RELATIONSHIPS
The 43-year-old Franklin was clearly proud of the photo. It brought good memories. And it provided a visual for his story, so he spent awhile digging through the archives of his cellphone to find it. At last he found Debbie’s email, and scooted over two chairs to share the picture. Quickly, everyone huddled around. Franklin pointed out everyone in his family and joked about his big head of hair.
Franklin said, “You guys don’t want to see this.” And twice he shook his head and asked, “How did we started talking about this?” A voice from the group, different each time, would remind him with a simple, “Jim and James.”
Oh, yeah. Then he’d continue. Understanding the dynamics, the history and composition of Franklin’s family might explain why he is so passionate about relationships that are real and lasting. He didn’t have many of those growing up, a situation exacerbated by divorced parents, one an African American and the other British, living at opposite ends of the state.
“My dad was in the Air Force and stationed in Manchester,” Franklin explained. “He met my mom, eloped to Ireland, then he brought her back to Pittsburgh. They started popping out beige babies -- me and my sister. My dad got a job working for General Motors in Trenton, so they moved between Trenton and Philly, did that until the plant closed.
“My mom’s from England, so that makes my family in a lot of ways small because basically the side I grew up with was just my dad’s side of the family. Everyone in England I just saw a handful of times. My mom had two brothers. One died from polio, not long after birth. It was one of those deals (his arms out), ‘Take him home and love him.’ My other uncle … my mom was walking down the street and he stepped off the curb and was hit by a bus. So I have no uncles and I have no cousins.
“On my dad’s side,” he said, turning back to Rocky Mount and Pittsburgh, “my dad had a brother and he was my godfather. He died of cancer right before I was born. He had no children. So I have no (blood) aunts nor uncles or cousins. All my cousins – like I say I have a cousin who coaches at Friendship Academy in Washington, D.C., who played at Howard – he’s really my dad’s cousin’s kid. What does that make me – a second, a third, a fourth cousin?”
The Geoffrey after James is very important to Franklin. He spells it out – “G-E-O-F-F-R-E-Y” – and quickly mentions he was named after one of his deceased uncles. An uncle he never met.
“…When my mom first came to this country, she and my dad lived with my grandma,” he continued. “So my mom’s first introduction to this country was nothing but black people in the Hill District on Bedford Avenue and learning how to cook soul food. My mom was as white as your (white cotton) shirt. Really fair. Had red hair, fair skin when she was young.”
Franklin spent summers in Pittsburgh after his folks broke up (Jim died in 1997, Josie in 2007), and considers that an important part of who he is. Part of that is due to his aunts -- most of whom married into the Franklin family, then later divorced. But they remained close.
“That’s how I was brought up – raised by mom, but all my holidays and all family time was spent around my dad’s side of the family,” Franklin said. “Although my mom raised me, and my mom and dad weren’t together, all the relationships on my dad’s side of the family are divorced. So although my mom is not from that part of the family the women stuck together, so we would still spend all our Thanksgivings together. It would be my mom and it would be all of my dad’s cousins and all the children. And they would just sit around bashing all the men.
“I remember sitting at the table, when they’d do that and they’d go, ‘That’s OK baby, we know you’re going to be different,’” Franklin smiled and extended his hands, vigorously shaking no.
Laughs all around when Franklin shared that one. It was funny, but brought to life what it was like as a boy in a world of women that featured aunts, his mother and Debbie. Women of whom he is intensely proud.
“My aunt LaWanda was the assistant dean of the engineering school at Howard,” he said. “She has actually retired back on the family property in Rocky Mount. It’s amazing. She and my aunt Melbadeane and aunt Romaine all grew up picking cotton in Rocky Mount and all three of them have masters degrees – LaWanda got her Ph.D., one was working in admissions at Howard when I was growing up then became a guidance counselor in Montgomery County. The third still works at Howard – two of them at Howard for over 30 years.”
So there was Franklin in a hotel meeting room in Linthicum, Maryland, a few miles from the BWI Airport. He was asked about Jim, and shared about James. He was near suburban Washington, D.C. where his aunts made their mark. The next day in the Caravan he was headed to Pittsburgh, and in two weeks Philadelphia. The Rocky Mount photo emailed from Debbie was on his mind.
“I have a unique background. It’s not so unique these days, but it was growing up,” he admitted. “Being biracial is not unique these days, which is a powerful thing for this country in many ways. In a lot of ways it’s probably going to change our country for the better, in terms of eradicating racism in our country. I’ve seen some interesting pictures on the Internet what a person is going to look like 50 years from now. It’s just going to be this blend of all these different people.”
PUT YOUR NAME IT
Franklin was finishing up as he started to frame his years with Josie and Jim and Aunt LaWanda and in Rocky Mount and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
“It’s given me a really unique perspective,” he said. “I can relate with and be comfortable in so many different settings because of the way I was raised.”
A while later, Franklin reflected on his reflections. He was joking, but in a head-shaking way.
“And it's all," he kidded, "from why James and not Jim.”
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