Integration Pioneers Return to Auburn as Part of Commemoration Celebration
Source Newsroom: Auburn University
Newswise — Nearly 50 years ago, Harold Franklin arrived on campus to register for classes in the graduate school and became the first African-American student to enroll at Auburn University.
Other young men and women followed: Anthony Lee and Willie Wyatt Jr. came to Auburn as the first African-American undergraduate students in the fall of 1964, after playing an instrumental role in integrating Macon County schools as high school students; Josetta Brittain Mathews was the first African-American student to receive a graduate degree from Auburn in 1966; Henry Harris, a basketball player, was Auburn's and the Southeastern Conference's first African-American scholarship athlete in 1968.
James Owens, Harold Franklin and Thom Gossom Jr. kick off the university's yearlong commemoration of 50 years of integration at Auburn.
Over the next 14 months, Auburn is celebrating these and other individuals who were involved in the integration of the university through a yearlong commemoration that includes performances, programs, lectures and other events that organizers say offer something of interest to everyone.
The celebration officially kicked off this month with the Women's Philanthropy Board's fall colloquium and luncheon featuring Thom Gossom Jr., the first African-American athlete to graduate from Auburn University and his wife, educator and entrepreneur, joyce gillie gossom, along with Marybeth Gasman, director of the Center on Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania.
Nearly 50 years ago, Harold Franklin arrived on campus to register for classes in the graduate school and became the first African-American student to enroll at Auburn University.
"Our history is our history, and I never back away from our history," said Gossom, who also is co-chair of the commemoration planning committee. "It doesn't mean that it's all positive. Sometimes you have to go through some things to learn what you should do and what you shouldn't do, but a large part of commemorating our history is to make sure we get the next 50 years right. That's why we look back because we want to be able to go forward as a global university."
Harold Franklin autographs programs at the Women's Philanthropy Board fall luncheon which kicked off the commemoration.
"During the time the planning committee was meeting and we were talking about what the kickoff might be, I was looking for an opportunity that would provide a means for as many people as possible to be involved and the Women's Philanthropy Board fall luncheon provided that platform," said Paulette Dilworth, assistant vice president for access and community initiatives in the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs.
"There was a cross section of people from the institution and from the community, and that was the kind of audience I thought it was important to have because the commemoration is not just an initiative of my office or of one particular unit, but it is an Auburn University event."
Dilworth said that for her, events of the commemoration that bring to campus many of those who played a significant role in what happened during integration at Auburn are the most important.
The front page of the Jan. 8, 1964 edition of The Auburn Plainsman.
"Having not attended Auburn University myself, having someone like Thom to co-chair the committee has been wonderful and so helpful to me in understanding some of that history from the people who were here," she said. "He's been really committed to making sure people who were significant during the time, like James Owens, Auburn's first African-American football player, and others are included in the programming."
Throughout the remainder of the fall semester, the Multicultural Center will share films and bring guest speakers to campus as part of their Watch and Learn and Lunch and Learn series. In January, the celebration will continue with a discussion forum to feature Harold Franklin, retired federal judge U.W. Clemon and attorney Fred Gray, as well as the events held as part of the university's annual King Week. The rest of the spring semester will offer films, exhibits, guest speakers and performances to involve both the campus and the greater community in the commemoration celebration.
"Sometimes when you land in a place, you wonder, 'Why am I here? What's my purpose?' and I understand now that for me, it was to be here to be a part of this," Dilworth said. "And for me, that is an honor. I don't know that – of all the institutions where I've worked – that I would have been a part of something as important as putting together something that would commemorate 50 years of history in one place."