Harold Franklin: Auburn University’s First Black Student Receiving His Master’s Degree After 51 Years

by Duke Magazine

Auburn University awards its first Black student with his master’s degree, 51 years after rejecting his thesis, according to The Auburn Plainsman. 

Harold Franklin, age 84, was the first Black student to integrate Auburn University in 1964 after several unsuccessful attempts to impede his admission to the school. After two years of litigation, Franklin was finally accepted, but his battle was just starting. Franklin spent his first day at the school surrounded by hundreds of state troopers sent to protect him and a cadre of media looking to cover the historic event. While the safety of Franklin was the main priority, other obstacles were cropping.

In pursuit of his degree in history, Franklin experienced racial prejudice. Many professors in his department superimposed their thoughts on what the first Black historian from the University should look like, and what he should study. They even forced him to design his master’s thesis towards his academic career at his alma mater, Alabama State College, as against what he wanted to write about, which was the history of the budding Civil Rights Movement. Franklin finally gave in, choosing to focus his thesis on his time at ASC, a historically Black university. Still, each time he would submit it for review, his advisors rejected his work for even the most minuscule of reasons.

“I didn’t want to write that. I wanted to write something on the civil rights struggle, and the professors told me it was too controversial. I really didn’t want to, but I had no choice. Each time I would bring it back for review, they would find something wrong with it. They justified [it by saying] mine had to be perfect. The other theses, they weren’t perfect, so why does mine have to be perfect? It kept going on so long, I said, ‘Hell, what you’re telling me is that I won’t get a degree from Auburn,” Franklin said.

He eventually transferred to the University of Denver, where he did receive his masters, and went on to build a career as a professor that lasted for almost three decades. Franklin retired in 1992, and received an honorary doctorate from Auburn in 2001. But this year, he finally received what he wasn’t afforded all those years ago, the ability to defend his original thesis. This year, in a small ceremony among faculty from the history department at Auburn, he did just that in front of a formal thesis committee.

Keith Hebert, an associate professor at Auburn, organized the event and sat on the committee. He spoke about why it was so important for them to do this, saying, “Harold Franklin’s story is a triumphant one. He’s the one who integrated Auburn University, and that’s a wonderful story to tell. But we really need to tell the full story of that, which is that after he came here, Auburn University did many things to try to obstruct his education and try to push him out of campus life. It’s up to us today to kind of look back into the past and try to admit the mistakes that our University has made over the years and to try to find some small ways – really small and incomplete ways – to sort [of] make amends for those things.”

Franklin was scheduled to walk across the stage this spring, but graduation was canceled due to the pandemic. In May, his master’s degree came in via mail along with a formal apology from the University.

“I wasn’t even expecting it. I didn’t even know for sure I’d gotten it until it came in the mail yesterday,”Franklin told The Daily Home. “I just walked out to the mailbox, and there it was. It feels quite good.” 

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