More than half a century after he submitted his thesis, Harold Franklin, the first African American to attend Auburn University, has finally received his master’s degree.
Franklin, who grew up in Talladega, was finally allowed to defend his thesis earlier this year, but the ceremony during which the degree was to be formally awarded was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I wasn’t even expecting it,” Franklin said. “I didn’t even know for sure I’d gotten it until it came in the mail yesterday. I just walked out to the mailbox, and there it was.”
“It feels quite good,” he added.
Franklin graduated from Alabama State University with honors in 1962 and wanted to go to law school at the University of Alabama.
Fred Gray, an attorney who had represented the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., suggested he apply for the master’s program at Auburn instead. At that time, Auburn had not integrated, and Franklin ended up successfully suing the university twice, first to gain admittance and then to be allowed to live on campus.
Franklin wanted to write his thesis on the civil rights struggle, which was still at its height at the time.
“My professors said no, that was too controversial,” he said. “They told me to write a history of Alabama State. I had graduated from there, but I was not really interested in writing about it.
“But I did all the research and started writing, and I was told every word of it would have to be perfect because everyone was going to read it. Every time I carried it back, they managed to find something minor wrong with it, and every time I fixed it they found something else.
“I read a lot of other people’s theses and I found a bunch of mistakes. Not that mine was perfect, I made some mistakes as well. I finally said, ‘Hell, I’m not going to get a master’s from Auburn.’ To be honest, I was a little disappointed.”
Although he did not have a master’s degree at that point, he launched a lengthy career in academics that eventually brought him back home.
He started out teaching at Alabama State, then moved to Tuskegee before getting word from Talladega College officials they needed a professor of Black history.
He’s been in Talladega County ever since, eventually earning his first master’s degree from the University of Denver, where he met future Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Now well into his 80s, Franklin still works part time at Terry’s Metropolitan Mortuary and resides in Sylacauga.
This story originally appeared in The Daily Home.