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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Kudos to Auburn University

A Commentary

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on February 28, 2020

I read a deeply moving and inspirational article by Greg Garrison, a reporter at, about Dr. Harold Franklin, Auburn University's first black student. Garrison's article describes Dr. Franklin's ordeal in integrating Auburn University in 1964, and the 51-year journey by Dr. Franklin to get the master's degree from Auburn that he earned five decades ago. I sincerely thank Mr. Garrison for bringing this heart-warming story to the public's attention.

I took a special interest in Dr. Franklin's ordeal because so many aspects of his journey reminded me of my oldest sister Marie Garraway's ordeal at Northwestern University from 1958 to 1961 for her undergraduate degree in mathematics, and in 1962 for her master's degree. It also reminded me of my brother Levi Watkins, Jr.'s ordeal when he integrated Vanderbilt University's medical school in 1966. Finally, it brought back a lot of repressed memories of my own ordeal when I desegregated The University of Alabama's law school in 1970, along with George Jones from Birmingham.

Dr. Franklin graduated from Alabama State College in 1962, a few months before my father, Dr. Levi Watkins, Sr., became the college's president. Dr. Franklin sought and was denied admission to Auburn University to pursue a master's degree in history. In 1963, Dr. Franklin sued Auburn University to gain enrollment to its graduate program. Legendary Montgomery, Alabama federal judge Frank M. Johnson ordered Auburn to enroll Dr. Franklin. Segregationist governor, George C. Wallace, tried to block Dr. Franklin's enrollment. Fortunately, this effort was unsuccessful.

Dr. Franklin was escorted onto campus by an FBI agent. Dr. Franklin was housed in a dormitory wing all by himself.

In Marie's case, white students at Northwestern did not want to be her roommate. Eventually, Northwestern found Jewish students who were willing to room with Marie. In Levi's case, he was in a dorm room by himself. He was also the victim of non-stop racial slurs and horrible acts of harassment and vandalism.

I shutter to imagine the racism Dr. Franklin must have experienced in 1964 at Auburn. Yet, he overcame it all without a bitter bone in his body.

Dr. Franklin's sheer determination and strength of character enabled him to survive the isolation and loneliness during his ordeal. The same was true for Marie and Levi.

When I desegregated UA's law school in 1970, I was the only black student in my section of 75 freshman students. George sat alone in his section of freshman law students. No one ever sat next to me in the classroom during my three years there. Fellow students and a few faculty members openly and regularly used the word "nigger" when referring to me. My law school years were the longest and loneliest three years of my life. I credit Mr. Ramus Rhodes, the brave and intellectually gifted black janitor in the law school building, for getting me through this challenging ordeal.

A Soldier of Conscience Named Keith Hebert

When Dr. Keith Hebert, an associate professor of history at Auburn and chair of the thesis committee learned of Dr. Franklin's experience 51 years ago, he took several faculty members to visit Dr. Franklin at his home in Sylacauga in early November, 2019. They asked Dr. Franklin if he still had his thesis. He did, and Dr. Franklin showed it to these visitors. Dr. Hebert scanned the thesis and distributed copies to faculty members. The thesis was evaluated by the committee from the era in which it was written and was compared to what was written, submitted, and approved for other master's students during that era.

Auburn also located and reviewed Dr. Franklin's student records to confirm that he completed his course requirements. After this review, the committee determined that Dr. Franklin's thesis was well-researched and that he had fulfilled all requirements for the award of his master's degree. The committee then approved Dr. Franklin's thesis. The approval came with a formal apology from the University for the delay in awarding Dr. Franklin his earned master's degree.

Even though Dr. Franklin received an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Auburn in 2001, he will finally receive the master's degree he earned 51 years ago. The degree will be awarded during the May 3rd commencement ceremonies.

Dr. Hebert led the Auburn University effort to award Dr. Franklin the master's degree he earned. His actions demonstrate that it is never too late to do the right thing. By his actions, Dr. Hebert is a soldier of conscience.

A Trail Blazer, Unsung Civil Rights Hero, and Man of Honor

After leaving Auburn, Dr. Franklin went on to earn a master's degree in international studies at the University of Denver. He never stopped elevating his educational status.

Dr. Franklin is a trailblazer, unsung civil rights hero, and man of honor. He grew up in Talladega and now lives in Sylacauga. Dr. Franklin taught history at famed Tuskegee University from 1965 to 1968. Later, he became a professor of history at Talladega College, where he served on the faculty from 1968 until his retirement in 1992.

Finally, Alabama State University should acknowledge Dr. Franklin's courage and pioneering work at Auburn University by conferring an honorary doctorate upon this distinguished alumnus during its May commencement ceremony. Dr. Franklin's academic preparation at ASU, together with his enduring efforts to uplift humanity, changed the course of history at Auburn University and positively impacted the Alabama's system of higher education forever. He is truly an inspiration to all Americans.

Thank you, Dr. Harold Franklin for showing us the proper way to greatness!

PHOTO: Dr. Harold A. Franklin, the first African American student at Auburn University.

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