Harold Alonza Franklin Sr. has finally received his master’s degree from Auburn University after being denied 51 years ago. In 1964, Franklin, a Talladega native, was the first African-American student to integrate Auburn University.
After graduating from Alabama State College in 1962, Franklin wanted to get a master’s degree in history from Auburn University. Franklin said Auburn University initially denied him admission to the university and a dorm room on campus.
He then arrived as a graduate student at Auburn in 1964 after suing the university. He and civil rights attorney Fred Gray defeated Auburn twice in federal court. Federal Judge Frank Johnson ruled in 1963 that Auburn had to allow him to enroll.
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,” according to a report.
Franklin said he spent 12 months at Auburn working on a master’s degree in history but had issues with his professors over the topic of his thesis. “I wanted to write on the civil rights struggle,” he said. “One of the professors told me it was too controversial.”
He ended up writing a thesis about Alabama State College, the historically black institution that he had graduated from. Still, Franklin could not graduate and never received his degree after his thesis was repeatedly rejected in late 1969.
“I thought I did a good job on the thesis,” Franklin told Aol.com. “One professor told me mine had to be perfect. I came back and made the adjustments they suggested.”
After the adjustments, he still couldn’t get his thesis approved. “They still complained about this or that. 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.”
“Finally I said, ‘Hell, what you’re telling me is I won’t get a degree from Auburn,’” Franklin recalled. He left and went on to earn a master’s degree in international studies at the University of Denver.
In 2001, Auburn awarded Franklin an honorary doctor of arts degree and formed the Harold A. Franklin Society as part of Auburn’s Multicultural Center.
“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,” Keith Hebert, associate professor of history at Auburn said.
Auburn University invited Franklin to come back to the university to finally defend his thesis. “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,” Hebert said.
Franklin defended his master’s thesis successfully on Wednesday, February 19, said Hebert, the chair of the thesis committee. A formal apology for the delay in awarding the degree was attached to the approval of the thesis.
“I’m honoured,” Franklin said in an interview. “I’m happy they finally decided after all these years. I’ll be there at graduation and get that degree.”
But for COVID-19, Franklin, now 87, would have finally received the master’s degree he earned on May 3, at Auburn’s spring commencement for the College for Liberal Arts. His degree was later mailed to him
Despite the delay, Franklin said he’s grateful that his work has finally been recognized. “I’m not angry about it,” Franklin said. “I’ve never felt angry about it. Life goes on. Nothing’s perfect in this world.”
Franklin 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. He now works part-time at Terry’s Metropolitan Mortuary in Talladega.