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Harold Franklin, first Black student at Auburn, dies at 88

Harold Franklin

Dr. Harold Franklin had to wait until 2020 to receive his Master's degree from Auburn University.

Dr. Harold Franklin, the first African-American student to attend Auburn University, died Thursday at the age of 88.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Thursday afternoon, but will be announced by Terry’s Metropolitan Mortuary in Talladega.

Franklin grew up in Talladega, a twin, the fourth and fifth children out of a family of 10 kids. Although his father did not have any formal education, his mother was a graduate of Talladega College.

Franklin himself earned a GED while serving in the military, then entered Alabama State College from 1956 until he graduated with honors in 1962. His dream was to attend law school at the University of Alabama and to follow in the footsteps of his hero Thurgood Marshall. He took the LSAT the year after Alabama integrated.

When he approached attorney Fred Gray, who had previous represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Gray recommended that he enroll in a masters program at Auburn instead. After discussing the issue with his wife, Franklin applied, and was turned down because Alabama State was not accredited. They sued the school and won, and Franklin officially broke the color barrier. Then they successfully sued again when Franklin was told he would not be allowed to live on campus.

Franklin wanted to write his dissertation on the civil rights struggle, which was still at its height at the time.

“My professors said no, that was too controversial,” he said in a 2020 interview with the Daily Home. “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.”

All that changed in February 2020, when Franklin was finally allowed to defend his thesis more than half a century after he wrote it.

It was approved, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremony where it would have been formally awarded was cancelled. He received his master’s degree in the mail in July of that year.

“It feels quite good,” he said at the time.

After giving up on ever getting his masters from Auburn, Franklin launched an academic career at his alma mater, Alabama State, then moving on to Tuskegee and finally back home, to Talladega College as a professor of Black history. He earned a master’s in international studies from the University of Denver and then returned to Talladega, where he continued to teach and took up a part time job at Terry’s, where he continued to work for the rest of his life.

Former Talladega City Councilman Jarvis Elston went to Auburn with Franklin when he defended his thesis.

“His contribution was not only to Black history but to American history,” Elston said. “His work, his leadership, those go without saying. He was a friend, a mentor, like a father to me. May he rest in peace.”

Anthony Cook, former executive editor at Consolidated Publishing and an Auburn grad, said he was grateful for the path Franklin had blazed.

“As an Auburn graduate, I am thankful for the doors he opened for me," he said. "I met my wife at Auburn, and my kids went there. I’ll always be thankful for that, and for the fact that he was such a fine gentleman.

"He worked hard late into his life, and that work ethic also set a valuable example, one that speaks to following generations. He established a great legacy not only of the importance of education but also of being a hard worker.”