Similar to the first African American student at the University of Oregon, Mabel Byrd, Nellie Louise Franklin lived in Portland, Oregon, attended Washington High School, and would eventually attend the University of Oregon. However, what sets these two historic women apart is that Franklin would eventually become the first documented African American woman to graduate from the UO.
Franklin’s family made their way to the Pacific Northwest in 1915 after her father, Sergeant Alfred J. Franklin finished his distinguished 27 year military career that included serving as one of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. They settled in Fort Vancouver, Washington until residential segregation caused them to relocate to Northeast Portland, where a vibrant African American community was concentrated. Along with her father, her mother, Cora Franklin, was a prominent public figure who participated in the National Convention of Colored Women’s Club. Her siblings were also active community members, such as her brother Yancy, who was the assistant manager of the historic African American newspaper The Advocate, and her sister Alfreda, who was a well known dress designer. As a popular instrumentalist at Bethel African American Episcopal church, Nellie herself attracted national attention and was reported in the national newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier in 1925 for her notable solos.
After graduating high school, Franklin continued her education at the University of Oregon as a music major in 1928. Like other African American students during this period, she faced housing discrimination that denied her residence in the campus dormitories. During her first year at the university, two well known African American football players Robert Robinson and Charles Williams and track athlete Hubert Allen were able to live on campus because a petition created by university football players demanded that Robinson and Williams be permitted to live on campus. However, Nellie and other African American women were forced to live off campus. Maxine Maxwell became the first African American to protest UO’s discriminatory housing policies that prevented African American women from living in campus’ dormitories. As a result of the situation, the UO’s dean of women, Virginia Judy Esterly, suggested a compromise by proposing that Maxwell live with Franklin at her house ten blocks from campus at 1970 Columbia Street, Eugene. However, Maxwell was not satisfied and decided to withdraw from the University of Oregon.
Despite housing discrimination, Franklin continued her studies at the UO and was involved in various student organizations. She joined the Women’s Athletic Association that promoted improving general health through intercollegiate athletic competitions for campus women. Sports offered to women included: golf, basketball, hockey, archery, swimming, and volleyball. She was also the only African American participant of the Polyphonic Choir that consisted of over two hundred singers. She joined the Cosmopolitan Club that provided an interracial support system and consisted of whites, Asians, and African American men. Nellie also desired to be a part of a sorority, but once again campus policies and Greek life at that time restricted her from doing so because of her race. Despite the discriminatory treatment she faced throughout her university career, Nellie Louise Franklin graduated June 25, 1932 with a bachelor of arts degree in music.
After graduation, she continued contributing to university life. On June 25, 1933, Franklin was one of seven women who founded the first African American Greek Letter organization in the Pacific Northwest: the Alpha Omicron Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority in Seattle, Washington. Her involvement in establishing the organization opened doors for future participation of African American women in sororities in the Pacific Northwest. Although she may have been a quiet high school student, Franklin made a significant impact on the University of Oregon community as the first African American woman graduate who created more opportunities for future African American women college students.
By Paulla Santos, Student Research Assistant