Betty Franklin-Hammonds

Betty Franklin-Hammonds 1995

Meg Theno

Newspaper publisher and irrepressible voice for Madison's black community Betty Franklin-Hammonds died late Wednesday, apparently of an asthma attack. She was 56.

Omnipresent, tenacious and low-key, Franklin-Hammonds seemed to have a hand in nearly every local civil rights campaign of the last 20 years. Her death was being mourned across a wide spectrum of civic and school leaders, many of whom regularly sought her advice.

``The community will never know all the things Betty did on a day-to-day basis because she never really called attention to herself,'' said Howard Landsman, a grants writer for the Madison School District and former member of the Madison Urban League board.

``I think she was perhaps a little bit embarrassed when people would recognize her as an individual. She was just focused on making a contribution,'' Landsman said. ``It's really hard to imagine the community without her.''

Franklin-Hammonds was returning from a Bible study class about 9 p.m. when she suffered the attack as she was driving in the 600 block of East Washington Avenue. Rescue officials attempted CPR and she was taken to Meriter Hospital, where she was later pronounced dead, Madison police spokesman Dave Gouran said.

Since 1991, Franklin-Hammonds edited and published The Madison Times, a weekly paper aimed at the city's minority population. Family members said the paper would continue publishing.

A sometimes stern but sincere advocate, Franklin-Hammonds used the paper to push for economic and educational parity with whites. In her last column, published in today's edition, she urged readers to save more and invest in black businesses.

Franklin-Hammonds came to Madison from her native Tampa, Fla., in 1971 as a social worker. She was recruited to work for the Madison branch of the NAACP, eventually working her way up to president. From 1984 to 1992, she served as Urban League president.

It was during her tenure that the League issued a seminal report exposing the gap in average achievement levels between white and black students in the Madison School District.

The report prompted a flurry of reform efforts, many of which continue today through the district's Equity, Diversity and Advocacy Department and the communitywide Schools of Hope initiative.

Unsatisfied with faddish solutions, Franklin-Hammonds could exhaust officials by continuing to come around until they hit upon something that worked.

``She made sure the board never lost sight of the issue of achievement, particularly of African American students,'' School Board President Carol Carstensen said.

She also shied from blaming the schools alone.

In a 1997 interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Franklin-Hammonds said: ``Until parents get involved in the education of children and see themselves as the primary educator and take on a different role than they do now, we are not going to close the gap.'' Franklin-Hammonds' activism on behalf of minority students stemmed largely from her sons' experiences in the Madison schools, said longtime friend Jon Gramling.

But she also had a deeper motivation.

``I think it was deeply embedded in her faith, as well as her commitment to the historical movement that organizations like the NAACP represented,'' said Gramling, NAACP treasurer.

Frequently described as a spiritual person, Franklin-Hammonds had recently moved into mission work and asked to be relieved of key duties she held at the Vessels of Praise Apostolic Church, Pastor Charles McNair said.

``She was a pianist, an organist and gospel singer,'' McNair said.

``It seems to me now that because Betty would often put a week's work into one day, she must have redeemed the time she had left,'' McNair said.

She was publicly praised often, most recently in January when she received the city's Martin Luther King Heritage Award for 1999. Next month, she was due to receive the YWCA's Women of Distinction Award.

Steve Braunginn, president and executive director of the Urban League, said Franklin-Hammonds was among the names he first heard when he came to Madison in 1974.

``I saw this dynamic woman who was out front,'' he said. ``I was very impressed and I said to myself, `This is a leader.' Then I knew I wanted to get involved.' ''

He later served on the Urban League board and remembers her high expectations for everyone involved with the organization.

``Betty . . . was a mentor. I just most certainly hope that I can do right by her.''

The annual dinner on May 14 will be dedicated to her, Braunginn said.

Franklin-Hammonds helped start The Madison Times in August 1991 with the help of Nathan Conyers, president and publisher of the Milwaukee Times.

``Betty was the only person I found who had the drive, the energy, the enthusisam and the ability to produce a weekly newspaper on a consistent basis,'' Conyers said. ``It would be a sad day in Madison to let that newspaper die after all of the time and effort that she put into making it a stable viable entity in the community.''

One of her sons, Linnell Franklin, said that won't happen.

``At this point, our plan is for the paper to continue,'' Franklin said. He said a special memorial issue will be published May 7.

Franklin-Hammonds is survived by her husband, David Hammonds; three sons, Linnell and John Franklin and Christopher Hammonds; and two daughters, Gina and Theresa Hammonds.

Former Urban League board member Toya Nelson said the group thought it was getting just a competent administrator when it hired Franklin-Hammonds in 1984.

``Of course, what we got was a visionary,'' she said.

She said she will miss Franklin-Hammonds but added: ``I don't despair because it is an opportunity for us to dedicate our lives in part in her memory and to remind ourselves to take pride in our community.''

As Franklin-Hammonds would say at the end of her weekly column:

Peace.

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