Harold Franklin, Auburn University's first black student, will be awarded master's degree in May
Harold Franklin, pictured at center with his dissertation committee, will be awarded his master's degree on May 3.
The first black student in Auburn University history will finally receive his long-awaited master’s degree from the school in May.
On Jan. 4, 1964, Harold Franklin walked onto the Auburn University campus as the first black student in school history, pursuing a master’s degree that he never received after his thesis was repeatedly rejected, as late as 1969.
On Sunday afternoon, May 3, at Auburn’s spring commencement for the College for Liberal Arts, Franklin, now 86, will finally receive the master’s degree he earned.
“I’m honored,” Franklin said in an interview Saturday. “I’m happy they finally decided after all these years. I’ll be there at graduation and get that degree.”
Franklin defended his master’s thesis successfully on Wednesday, Feb. 19, said Keith Hebert, associate professor of history at Auburn, the chair of the thesis committee.
Hebert said the current administration at the university learned about Franklin’s rejected master’s thesis after AL.com did an interview with Franklin on Aug. 30 regarding Gov. Kay Ivey’s blackface incident. Ivey and Franklin were students at Auburn at the same time.
Harold Alonza Franklin Sr. arrived as a graduate student at Auburn in 1964 after suing the university. Federal Judge Frank Johnson ruled in 1963 that Auburn had to allow him to enroll.
Franklin had graduated from Alabama State College in 1962 and wanted to get a master’s degree in history from Auburn University. He worked selling insurance while he waited on the judge’s ruling in his lawsuit. “I won two cases against them,” Franklin said. “I was a 31-year-old married agitator. George Wallace was governor. I don’t have to tell you what he was like.”
Wallace sent state troopers to impede Franklin’s enrollment, but he was escorted onto campus by an FBI agent. Franklin was assigned to a dormitory wing all to himself.
Franklin said he spent 12 months at Auburn working on a master’s degree in history and clashed with his professors over the topic of his thesis. “I wanted to write on the civil rights struggle,” Franklin said. “One of the professors told me it was too controversial.”
He instead wrote a thesis about Alabama State College, the historically black institution that he had graduated from.
“I thought I did a good job on the thesis,” Franklin said by phone on Saturday. “One professor told me mine had to be perfect. I came back and made the adjustments they suggested.”
Still, he couldn’t get his thesis approved. “They still complained about this or that,” Franklin said. “I had been to the thesis room and read the white kids’ thesis. I couldn’t understand why mine wasn’t acceptable and the others were.”
It became clear by 1969 that Auburn would not approve his thesis. “Finally I said, ‘Hell, what you’re telling me is I won’t get a degree from Auburn,’” Franklin recalled.
In 2001, Auburn awarded Franklin an honorary doctor of arts degree.
“It was a really nice gesture,” Hebert said. “For Harold, the honorary degree was nice. He displays it. It’s on the wall. He’s Dr. Harold Franklin. But there was an incompleteness. He had earned all the credits, he did all the courses, he had written the thesis.”
Hebert said that after he read the story about Franklin’s reflections on Ivey, in which he described Auburn’s treatment of him at the time, he took several faculty to visit Franklin at his home in Sylacauga.
“We reached out to Harold and went to visit him in early November,” Hebert said. “We wanted to hear his story.”
Then Hebert asked if Franklin still had his thesis. “He pulled it right out,” Hebert said. “He held onto it. It still means something to him.”
Franklin said he always had it handy.
“I keep a copy here,” Franklin said. “I keep it right here on the sofa next to me.”
Hebert scanned the thesis and distributed copies to faculty.
“We tried to evaluate it from the era it was written, which was 1969, to read what was approved that year,” Hebert said. “He had written a well-research master’s thesis. He had, more than 50 years earlier, fulfilled all requirements. We organized a defense. It’s shameful that it had to take this long.”
Auburn located his student records, which wasn’t easy, Hebert said.
A formal apology for the delay in awarding the degree was attached to the approval of the thesis.
It’s not his first earned master’s degree. After leaving Auburn, Franklin went on to earn a master’s degree in international studies at the University of Denver.
Born on Nov. 2, 1932, Franklin grew up in Talladega and now lives in Sylacauga, after retiring from his career as a history teacher. He taught at Tuskegee University from 1965-68, and later Talladega College, where he was an assistant professor of history from 1968 until his retirement in 1992. These days, he works part-time at Terry’s Metropolitan Mortuary in Talladega.
Franklin said he’s grateful that his work has finally been recognized, despite the delay.
“I’m not angry about it,” Franklin said. “I’ve never felt angry about it. Life goes on. Nothing’s perfect in this world.”
Last Updated: February 24, 2020