Auburn has come a long way since 1964 integration, but realizes more must be done

Published: February 10, 2021
As Auburn celebrates Black History Month, the university takes a look back at the trailblazer, Harold A. Franklin, who moved the institution forward through integration and propelled it toward needed change that continues to this day.
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The 1960s was one of the most turbulent decades in American history. There was the Summer of Love, Woodstock and the moon landing, but three prominent men were assassinated and violence erupted in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, as well as Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, Alabama.

Young people became activists, joining antiwar or civil rights protests across the country. Their demand to be heard would often clash with police.

Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, parts of the nation remained reluctant to accept integration. Others sought to usher in an era of equality with the civil rights movement.

Harold A. Franklin Sr., of Talladega, Alabama, was 23 years old when a Black seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in Montgomery in 1955. Her defiance sparked the civil rights movement and inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

By 1963, Franklin was a Korean War veteran and an alumnus of Alabama State College, now Alabama State University, in Montgomery. He so admired attorney Thurgood Marshall, who had successfully challenged segregation in the courts, including Brown v. Board of Education, Franklin wanted to attend law school. But attorney Fred Gray, who defended Parks after her arrest in the bus incident, encouraged Franklin to study history and attend Auburn University first.

Franklin likely knew he would face an uphill battle to get to the Plains. Auburn had yet to be integrated, and integration at the other state university, the all-white University of Alabama, did not go smoothly.

On June 11, 1963, six months after Alabama Gov. George Wallace vowed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his inauguration address, he famously stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium in an attempt to prevent two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling at Alabama.

After Auburn denied Franklin’s admittance, Gray filed a class-action lawsuit, citing Auburn’s refusal to admit him was a violation of his constitutional rights. A U.S. district judge agreed on Nov. 5, 1963, and 31-year-old Franklin was admitted to the university. Auburn was officially desegregated on Jan. 4, 1964, when Franklin enrolled for graduate classes.

Gray also successfully represented Malone and Hood against the University of Alabama. Malone became Alabama’s first Black graduate in 1965. Hood left the university after two months, but returned in 1995, graduating with a doctorate two years later.

On the Plains

Auburn President Ralph B. Draughon scheduled Franklin’s registration on a Saturday with the hope that any potential conflict would be avoided on a closed campus. Violence had erupted at other universities attempting integration. Just the year before, riots broke out at the University of Mississippi when James Meredith enrolled.

Auburn University officials and FBI agents escorted Franklin to campus, but were stopped by state troopers, sent by Wallace. Franklin was permitted to proceed, albeit alone, and met Draughon in the library. Per court order, Draughon accepted Franklin’s application. Some protesters assembled nearby, but no conflict or violence ensued. Auburn provided Franklin with campus housing, also an order of the court, although it meant, as the only Black student on campus, he would live alone in a wing of an all-white dormitory.

Malone, Hood, Meredith and Franklin went on to share unpleasant campus experiences. Ultimately, Franklin met resistance involving his master’s thesis on civil rights.

By all accounts, Franklin was an exemplary student, but the faculty in the Department of History considered his thesis topic “too controversial.” Instead, they urged him to cover the history of Alabama State College, his historically Black alma mater. Franklin played along and wrote his thesis as directed.

“But after a while, they seemed outright hostile to him finishing it,” said Keith S. Hébert, an associate professor of history at Auburn in a 2020 Washington Post article. “They held him to a different standard because he was Black. It had to be perfect. It was designed to force him to leave.”

The rejection of each and every version of his thesis took such a toll on Franklin, he eventually left Auburn and completed his education at the University of Denver. He would go on to have a successful 27-year career in higher education.

Righting history

Hébert also told The Post that, for all Auburn had done to honor Franklin—awarding an honorary degree in 2001 and erecting a historical marker in 2015, commemorating desegregation—it had never acknowledged “the story about this man who was cheated out of the degree he rightfully earned.”

Hébert and other members of the history department tried to rectify that mistake in February 2020 by giving Franklin the opportunity to defend his thesis. Franklin was successful in his defense and was scheduled to receive his master’s degree during commencement in May, but the event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic and the document was mailed to him instead.

Fortunately, an 88-year-old Franklin was able to walk across the stage during December’s commencement ceremony. He received a copy of the Auburn Creed, like every other Auburn graduate. He then hooded Shari L. Williams, Auburn’s first female African American doctoral graduate in the Department of History.

“Auburn’s doing the right thing today and is doing something that should have been done a long time ago,” said Elizabeth Huntley, a 1993 Auburn alumna and member of the university’s Board of Trustees. “I would not be here had it not been for Dr. Franklin’s courage to be an Auburn student in isolation during a dark time in our history. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to do the right thing and create opportunity for others.”

Following in his footsteps

Franklin will forever be the first to break the color barrier at Auburn. But he is far from the last.

Names like Josetta Brittain Matthews (first Black and first Black woman to graduate), Samuel Pettijohn (first Black man to graduate), James Owens (first Black scholarship football player), Linwood Moore (first Black cheerleader), Harold D. Melton (first Black Student Government Association president) and Ada Ruth Huntley (first Black woman SGA president), to name a few, are equally significant in Auburn’s history.

“Building an inclusive university requires us to take a critical look at our past as we publicly acknowledge how those actions negatively impacted Alabama’s African American community,” Hébert said. “The future depends on recognizing that we have not achieved equal opportunity, but can do so if we take meaningful steps to reconcile past, present and future through community engagement, public conversations and human empathy.”

Like the nation, Auburn has faced many challenges as of late, and it is working to address them.

In a letter to the Auburn Family last June, Auburn President Jay Gogue stated, “In the past, Auburn has done some things right, and we’ve done some things wrong. We need to do more. We will work together, and we will do better.”

Gogue assembled the Presidential Task Force for Opportunity and Equity—comprised of undergraduate and graduate students, staff, faculty, alumni and Administrative and Professional Assembly representatives—to examine ways to make Auburn a better place for all. Since its inception, the group has made recommendations to address recruitment and retention of underrepresented students, faculty and staff, as well as to implement campus-wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Education and Training.

Their work is currently focused on retention of underrepresented students and the creation of an equity and social justice institute at Auburn.

One of the task force members is Taffye Benson Clayton, who became Auburn’s first vice president and associate provost for inclusion and diversity when the university established the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, or OID, in 2016. Clayton and OID are dedicated to building unity, equity and inclusion at Auburn.

“Advancing racial equity is hard work,” said Clayton. “It involves developing remedies that impact the structures, systems and practices that enable true fairness and equality of opportunity.

“It is fitting that we at Auburn acknowledge our steps along a journey to identify, examine and address historic and current racial inequities during Black History Month. Our campus has begun an ongoing process to promote racial justice by creating a more inclusive history and an equitable future for all members of the Auburn Family.”

Gogue also created a task force comprised of members of Auburn’s Board of Trustees to consider broader issues facing higher education. Under the leadership of Trustees Huntley and James Pratt, the group has recommended Franklin’s historic marker be enhanced and included in campus tours. They also requested the Student Center be renamed in honor of Melton, the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.

Earlier this month, the task force announced two residence halls in the Village will bear the names of two “trailblazers” at Auburn.

Tiger Hall will be renamed in honor of Bessie Mae Holloway, the first Black person to serve as a member of the Board of Trustees and only the second woman, serving from 1985-2000.

Eagle Hall will be renamed in honor of Josetta Brittain Matthews, the first Black student to graduate from Auburn, earning a master’s degree in 1966 and a doctorate in 1975, both in education. She was also the first Black faculty member at the university, joining the College of Liberal Arts around 1972.

The Auburn Alumni Association Board of Directors recently established an endowed scholarship in Matthews’ name to support Auburn’s goal of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion among its student body. The association also formed a Black Alumni Council and appointed Chacolby Burns-Johnson as its inaugural chair.

Last November, a month before Huntley witnessed Franklin’s historic walk at graduation, she saw history unfold as the Harold D. Melton Student Center became the first building at Auburn named for an African American.

Huntley’s daughter, Ada Ruth Huntley, was also among the attendees at the renaming ceremony. In their remarks, Mrs. Huntley called Melton a “trailblazer,” while Miss Huntley praised him, “You walked so that I could run, and I am incredibly grateful for your contributions to our university.”

Before Miss Huntley ran for SGA president, she was a senator and part of the Student Senate in 2018 to unanimously pass legislation in support of a campaign to create a plaza recognizing the legacy of the National Pan-Hellenic Council and African American culture at Auburn.

The National Pan-Hellenic Council, or NPHC, is the governing body for Black Greek organizations. Of the nine NPHC chapters, often called The Divine Nine, five are represented on Auburn’s campus.

In a 2018 letter, then-SGA President Dane Block wrote, “This resolution is the first step taken of many needed as we look to see through this project that pushes our campus forward in a positive light and serves for the betterment of Auburn University as a whole. Through all facets of life, we encourage Auburn to continue efforts in supporting an inclusive and diverse environment, both within the boundaries of campus and beyond. SGA, on behalf of the students, believe this project will aide in this and fully support the effort moving forward.”

Last summer, the trustees announced its support for the creation and naming of the National Pan-Hellenic Council Legacy Plaza. The symbolic and functional space will include one marker for each of the nine Black Greek organizations and one central marker explaining the plaza’s representation and recognizing project donors.

When it is erected in front of the new Academic Classroom and Laboratory Complex, it will be the first physical landmark for any Black student organization on Auburn’s campus. Construction of the legacy plaza is expected to begin in 2022.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.