Current student with historical images in background
Architecture student Tayler Ervin finds inspiration in the life of Nellie Franklin (left).

Striking a Chord for Change

The legacy of music major Nellie Franklin—the first Black woman to graduate from the UO—resonates today

By Kristen Hudgins Photo illustration by David Gill and Nic Walcott January 17, 2024

4 min read 

Nothing could stand in the way of Nellie Louise Franklin and her right to an education.

When she stepped onto the University of Oregon campus in 1928, she faced discrimination, isolation, and hate. But in a feat of resiliency and determination, she graduated in 1932, becoming the first African American woman on record to do so from the university, paving the way for generations of Black women to come.

The racism she experienced at the UO was not unfamiliar to Franklin. It met her family as soon as they arrived in the Pacific Northwest. They moved to Washington in 1915 after Nellie’s father, Sgt. Alfred Franklin, retired from an illustrious military career, according to Herman Brame, BS ’68 (sociology), who has documented Black history at the university. In Nellie L. Franklin: Pioneering Oregon Soror, he writes, “they settled in Fort Vancouver until residential segregation forced their relocation to Northeast Portland where a vibrant African American community was concentrated.”

Once settled, Franklin displayed her musical talents at Bethel African American Episcopal Church, her performances so impressive she garnered national media coverage when the Pittsburgh Courier wrote about her “notable solos” in 1925. 

Following her graduation from Washington High School in Portland, she took her talents south to the UO to study music at what is today the School of Music and Dance. She was not permitted to stay in a dormitory and was forced to live off campus. 

Despite the discrimination, she stayed. 

Franklin joined several student organizations, including the Women’s Athletic Association and the Cosmopolitan Club, which provided an interracial support system. She was also the only African American member of the Polyphonic Choir.

Franklin enjoyed the fruits of her perseverance on June 25, 1932, when she graduated with a bachelor of arts in music, a historic accomplishment that charted a path for thousands of women of color after her. 

“Nellie Franklin ultimately demonstrated how, even against the odds, change is possible.”

—Kimberly Johnson

“The one single factor that causes social change is people being determined that they’re going to make it happen and not get discouraged, not get off the track,” Brame says in Racing to Change, a documentary about Black student life at the UO.

The effects of Franklin’s determination continue to ripple throughout campus. She helped shape a legacy that benefits today’s underrepresented students, says Kimberly Johnson, BS ’01 (ethnic studies), vice provost for Undergraduate Education and Student Success.

“Despite grappling with issues like no access to on-campus housing and facing isolation and discrimination, Nellie’s triumphs stand as a testament to her resilience and determination in surmounting substantial barriers,” says Johnson. “She ultimately demonstrated how, even against the odds, change is possible.”

After college, Franklin and several other women in Oregon and Washington were the first to advocate and advance the formation of a Black sorority in the Pacific Northwest. This, after she was denied membership to sororities on campus due to her race. Today, students proudly join historically Black sororities at the UO, finding belonging and sisterhood.

Tayler Ervin smiling, outside and with trees in the background
Ervin has found a welcoming place in Alpha Kappa Alpha (courtesy Tayler Ervin)

“Having somewhere I can go to and be surrounded by women who look like me and think like me is amazing,” says Tayler Ervin, an architecture student and president of the historically Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. “It’s a space for me to go and have someone to relate to on campus since we go to a predominantly White institution, and especially since my major is also predominantly male dominated and I’m the only African American woman in my major at the moment.” 

Of the nearly 24,000 students on campus, 2.7 percent are African American and 33.9 percent represent ethnic minorities.

Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta, another historically Black sorority, are represented on campus. Their memberships include women from schools across the state.

Ervin finds inspiration in Franklin’s story.

“She stuck with it and demonstrated resiliency in pursuing her education,” Ervin says. “For her to make it through four years of school with some people who probably weren’t very welcoming, but she still fought, is incredible. She knew it was going to be important for people like me to be able to have the opportunity to go to schools like the University of Oregon in the future.”

“Nellie Franklin was a groundbreaker who laid the foundation for others to follow despite numerous challenges,” Johnson says. “Her resilience during tough times serves as a powerful lesson for our students, showing that overcoming obstacles can lead to lasting change.”

Want to celebrate a Mighty Woman of the University of Oregon? Send us your submission before Women’s History Month in March.

Kristen Hudgins is a public relations specialist in the School of Music and Dance.

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