Earlier this year, Harold Alonza Franklin Sr. returned to his alma mater, Auburn University, where he became the first Black student to integrate the school, to receive his master’s degree 51 years later.
Franklin arrived at Auburn University as a graduate student in 1964, after he sued the university and a federal judge ruled that the university had to allow him to enroll. He was escorted by the FBI because then Governor Mike Wallace had sent state troopers to prevent the integration.
He had graduated from Alabama State College, a historically Black college, in 1962, and his plan was to obtain his master’s degree in history. Things took a turn, however, when he clashed with professors over the topic of his thesis. “I wanted to write on the civil rights struggle,” Franklin said in an interview with AL.com. “One of the professors told me it was too controversial.”
Franklin changed the thesis to another subject but the new thesis never got approved either. “They still complained about this or that,” he explained to AL.com. “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.”
He spent 12 months at Auburn working toward his degree, but realized by 1969, after five years and countless tweaks, that Auburn was never going to approve his thesis.
In 2001, he received an honorary doctor of arts degree from the institution as an acknowledgment for his work. But now finally, after half a century, the university invited him back to defend his thesis—which he did successfully in February—and to obtain his long-awaited degree.
“He had earned all the credits, he did all the courses, he had written the thesis,” Keith Hebert, an associate professor of history at Auburn and the chair of the thesis committee, told AL.com, about the thesis, which Franklin had kept for all these years.
“I’m honored,” Franklin said in an interview with AL.com about the milestone. “I’m happy they finally decided after all these years. I’ll be there at graduation and get that degree.”