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Auburn University to rename dorms after first Black graduate and first Black member of Board of Trustees
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Auburn University to rename dorms after first Black graduate and first Black member of Board of Trustees

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The names of two Auburn University trailblazers will adorn student dormitories in the Village.

Auburn’s Board of Trustees voted Friday to rename Tiger Hall for late faculty member Josetta Brittain Matthews, the first African-American to receive a degree from Auburn, and Eagle Hall for Bessie Mae Holloway, the first African-American to serve the university’s governing board.

The votes are the latest in a series of actions taken by a task force of university trustees, chaired by Elizabeth Huntley and Jimmy Pratt, to examine building names and monuments. The work is intended to promote more diversity across the campus and weed out vestiges of Alabama's Jim Crow and Confederate eras. 

In November, Georgia's state Supreme Count Chief Justice, Harold Melton, an Auburn graduate who became the first African-American to have a campus building named after him.

Holloway earned a doctoral degree in education from Auburn. She was appointed by then-Gov. George Wallace in 1985 and served until 2000, not only as the first African-American on the board but also as the second woman ever to be an Auburn Trustee.

She taught in the Mobile County Public Schools System for 25 years. She was also honored by the Vatican for her lifelong service to the Catholic Church. She passed away in 2019.

Barbara Wallace-Edwards, a 1979 graduate of Auburn, spoke to the The Plainsman campus newspaper about Holloway in 2019.

"I left Auburn with a very bitter taste in my mouth because the experiences I had dealing with students who were racist and even some professors who were racist," Wallace-Edwards said. "… It really warmed my heart to see that Auburn was branching out when Dr. Holloway came aboard as a trustee because it opened my eyes to see that Auburn was changing, the environment was changing.” 

Matthews received a master’s degree in 1966 and a doctorate in 1975, both in education. She was also the first Black instructor at the university, teaching French and history starting in 1972. The trustees awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2005. She passed away in 2019.

Matthews’ daughter, Heidi B. Wright ’20, teaches special education at Auburn.

“My mom was a true historian,” Wright said in a 2020 interview with the university’s communications staff. “I loved listening to her explain history to me in her unique way that made me understand things happening in the world. She had a knack for making you understand any world event by bringing history into the future. She could give you the historic background information on wars, culture, gender differences and politics that made you understand the world around you.

“She told me, ’I love what I do!’ I know she is smiling from heaven on Auburn University.”

Huntley said the university’s Alumni Association will seek support for a scholarship in Matthews’ name on Tiger Giving Day on Feb. 24.

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