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Harold Franklin

Auburn's first African-American student

On Jan. 4, 1964, Harold A. Franklin became the first African-American student to enroll at Auburn University. Although he did not complete his degree at Auburn, he went on to earn a master's degree in history at the University of Denver and later pursued a career in higher education. He taught and held administrative posts at Alabama State University, where he had completed his undergraduate degree; North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University; Tuskegee University; and he completed his career at Talladega College, retiring from the school in 1992. In 2001, Franklin was awarded an honorary doctorate of arts from Auburn University. Now 81 years old, he resides in Sylacauga, Ala., and works at Terry's Metropolitan Mortuary in Talladega, Ala.

1. How does it make you feel to return to Auburn to celebrate the university's commemoration of integration and to look back at 50 years ago when you first came here to enroll?

Well, as long as they invite me back, I'll come.

You do things because they need to be done, and if you can help somebody, then you do it and then move on. That's just the way I am. I don't let anything really bother me too much. I guess it's because of the way Mom and Dad raised us; you do what you can and go on. So, when Fred Gray asked me about going to Auburn, I reluctantly agreed. But I'm glad I did because, hopefully, it helped somebody else and made it easier for other African-Americans and other minorities to come to Auburn without having to go through what I went through.

2. You've said before that you did not want to come to Auburn, so how did Fred Gray convince you to do so?

He said I was the ideal candidate. I was married and honorably discharged from the military; I had graduated from Alabama State University; and I didn't have a jail record, so I was an ideal candidate to integrate Auburn University.

My ambition was to become a lawyer. Thurgood Marshall was my idol. The state of Alabama had this policy, if I remember correctly, that you must have five lawyers who've been practicing in the state for five years to verify your character in order to go to law school. So, I went to Fred as one of the lawyers whom I'd known and asked him to do it. He said, "Well, yes, I'll sign, but have you looked at Auburn University?" I said that it was the last school in the world I'd looked at because I wasn't interested in agriculture. When Daddy grew a garden, the first thing I would try to do was hide! Anyway, Fred said, "Listen, you are the ideal candidate, and we need people like you," and when he ran it down for me, there was nothing else I could say but yes.

So I made my application to Auburn, and you know the story; they turned me down and we went to court, and Judge Frank Johnson ruled in our favor that Auburn had discriminated against me. Obviously, they couldn't turn me down because I was black; they turned me down because Alabama State University wasn't accredited at the time. State Superintendent of Education Austin R. Meadows testified that the reason Alabama State University and Alabama A&M were not accredited was because the legislature would not appropriate the funding to the black schools the way they were supposed to. When that happened, Fred looked at me and said, "We just won our case." I was thinking then that if we didn't get the school desegregated like we hoped we would, at least they would appropriate more money for the black schools than what they were doing and then build them up and at least get them accredited.

3. What were your emotions on that first day? Weren't you scared?

Well, I was a veteran; I served in the Air Force during the Korean Conflict, and things like that just didn't frighten me. It angered me more, though, to see the state troopers acting like one black guy was going to come on campus and start trouble with thousands of white people. It didn't really bother me, though. Mom and Dad always taught us to fight for what we believe in, so I can always be thankful to them for that.

4. Did you feel like a leader at the time or did you just feel out of place?

Well, I didn't feel like a leader because I didn't have anyone to lead, looking at it literally. But, I didn't feel out of place. I felt I had earned the right to be here. I had gone through a court of law which said, "You have a right to go to Auburn if you want to."

5. What would you tell current and future Auburn students?

The main thing I would ask them is to do their best; I don't care what it is, or what school you go to – DO YOUR BEST. Over the years I asked all my students to register to vote to earn an extra 100 points in my classes. I thought they needed the experience of learning how to vote. I hope that I instilled in them the importance of being a part of their community.

I loved teaching, I really did, because I wanted to see my students succeed. I came across one who became a lawyer and one who became a physician, and that makes me feel good because at least I had a positive effect on them. I just want the best for these kids. It disturbs me to see kids on drugs, with guns or in jail because there are too many people out there struggling to make things better, especially for African-Americans.

I'm glad I could help do something. We have too much tragedy now with the guns and the gangs; I'm hoping that young people will grasp what we have tried to do in the past and hold onto it and pass it down to future generations.

Feb. 3, 2014