One hundred and ten years after Auburn University was founded as East Alabama Male College in 1856, Josetta Brittain Matthews became its first African-American graduate.
Matthews received her undergrad degree in French and political science from Indiana University before deciding to attend recently-integrated Auburn University.
As an Auburn student, she found, “generally, people were very kind and helpful. I think what happened was my friends and my major professors sheltered me and they only introduced me to nice people.”
But at the War Eagle Cafeteria, if she sat down at one of the long tables with undergraduates, “boy, everybody would get up and leave,” leaving her feeling awkward. But classmates began inviting her to eat with them “and after that people would come and sit at the table.”
With the master’s degree, she taught political science and French language at Tuskegee until returning to Auburn for the doctoral program in social science education in 1971.
She earned her second master’s in 1974 with a dissertation titled “The Image of American Negroes, 1960 to 1970, as Reflected by Issues of the Journal of Negro Education and Ebony Magazine.”
While Mrs. Matthews pursued a doctorate in education at Auburn, history professor Ed Williamson mentioned her to his department head, Malcolm McMillan, as a possible instructor. She had taught political science at Tuskegee University, and McMillan knew her father, who headed the history department at Alabama State University.
“I had the potential of teaching black history because the black students wanted someone black to teach.”
Almost a decade after becoming Auburn’s first African-American graduate, Matthews became its first African-American faculty member, joining the school of Arts and Sciences (now the College of Liberal Arts) as a history instructor.
College of Education Dean Fran Kochan said Matthews’ success as a student and educator ranks among the highlights of the college’s 90-year history. Andrew Weaver, the longtime head of the Department of Curriculum and Teaching in the College of Education, was chair of Matthews’ graduate committees for her master’s and doctoral degrees. Weaver, who is now the college’s acting associate dean for administration, recalls that Matthews was unfazed by her pioneering role in the college.
“She was well prepared and did great work in both the master’s and doctoral programs,” he said. “She became an integral part of our student body. She was an outstanding graduate student. She came here to get a degree and become part of the university, and she did it about as well as anyone could.”
Weaver said Matthews’ academic background was an apparent factor in her success as a graduate student at Auburn and later as a professor at Tuskegee. He noted that Matthews had been a stellar student at Indiana University before she came to Auburn.
In 2005 Auburn trustees awarded an honorary doctorate to Josetta Brittain Matthews.