Heidi Wright smiled wide and beamed with pride as Auburn University celebrated the life of her late mother, Josetta Brittain Matthews, at a special residence hall naming ceremony on Wednesday.
Wright, who teaches special education at Auburn, stood before Josetta Brittain Matthews Hall in the Village area of campus and spoke fondly of her mother – the university’s first African American graduate and faculty member – on the windy and sunny afternoon.
“I know she would be delighted and truly humbled by this overwhelming acknowledgement of all she accomplished,” said Wright, who earned a doctoral degree in special education from Auburn last year. “The Brittain Matthews legacy is surely promoted by having this residence hall named for my mother, fondly known by me as ‘mommy.’ Auburn has always held such a special place of honor with our family, and my mother was dedicated to living out the ideals of the Auburn Creed.
“Sometimes, history can be forgotten, or far worse, erased. With these recent namings, Auburn is taking a big step in the other direction, acknowledging the accomplishments of its Black alumni and more fully telling the story of its past and giving hope and encouragement to all students in their pursuit for a brighter future.”
Matthews graduated from Laboratory High School on the campus of Alabama State University and received her bachelor’s degree in French and political science from Indiana University Bloomington in 1965. The following year, two years after Harold Franklin integrated Auburn in 1964, Matthews enrolled at Auburn.
She would go on to become the school’s first African American graduate by earning a master’s degree in education in 1966. Matthews became Auburn’s first Black faculty member in 1972 by joining the College of Liberal Arts as a French and history instructor and earned her doctorate at Auburn in 1975.
Wright idolized her mother and developed a similar love of education that also led her to Auburn.
“As a very young child, I always remember coming home and seeing my mother sitting at the table,” Wright said. “She would always have a book open, a pencil or pen and a writing pad or index cards. I wanted to be like my mom, so when I had the opportunity to emulate her, I did.
“I remember my first day at Auburn as a graduate student. I got out of my car and was walking toward the bus station to go to Haley Center, and it was a magical moment for me. I just took in all of the campus in its glory, and it took me back to those days of coming here with my mother.”
Matthews also worked tirelessly as a professor at Tuskegee University. While there, she served as a department chair, head of the Department of Political Science and secured numerous grants throughout her career. Matthews – a native of Fort Benning, Georgia, who was a resident of Montgomery until her passing on Dec. 15, 2019 – was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Auburn Board of Trustees in 2005.
“I feel honored to be here today,” Auburn President Jay Gogue said. “Dr. Matthews was a real trailblazer who cared deeply about education and cared deeply about Auburn University. She was a very special person, and we are honored to be able to name this facility after her and ensure her legacy will live on forever here at Auburn.”
Several of Matthews’ friends and family members, including her grandson, Jeffrey Wright, attended the afternoon ceremony alongside members of the Auburn Board of Trustees and university and student leaders. Matthews’ best friend, Judge Gammiel Poindexter, the first African American woman elected as a Commonwealth Attorney for the County of Surry, Virginia, also spoke at the celebration.
“I don’t know how to express to you how I felt when I walked up here to these steps, looked up and saw Josetta’s name written on this building. It was an experience,” said Poindexter, who met Matthews as an undergrad at Indiana University. “I say to those who made the decision to name a dormitory on campus after Dr. Matthews, you could not have picked a better choice. Your students can sleep at night knowing that their home away from home is named after a proud and brave African American woman who met head on many challenges in life, fought many battles personally and professionally and most important, survived and thrived.”
Auburn Board of Trustees member Elizabeth Huntley spoke of progress and optimism before presenting Wright with an official proclamation to commemorate the occasion.
“What an honor it is to be here today for yet another historic naming in honor of a trailblazer who fostered such meaningful change in the way of advancing diversity and equality at Auburn,” said Huntley, who serves as co-chair of the Trustees Task Force that is reviewing broad diversity and inclusion issues. “In acknowledging the hard work and advancements that Dr. Matthews accomplished and furthered, Auburn is again affirming its commitment to the long-term, deliberative work needed in advancing a culture of inclusivity that will serve to further unite our strong Auburn Family.
“On behalf of the Auburn University Board of Trustees, I am pleased to see such continued movement toward progress, and it is only fitting that we meet here today to name this student residence hall in Dr. Matthews’ honor, knowing her long-lasting contributions to students will be forever remembered as they pass by this hall’s new, esteemed name.”
Matthews was known as a true historian, with a talent for connecting all things with the past and putting them in their proper context with current events, doing so in such a way as to make history relatable and understandable to anyone. In 2020, the Auburn Alumni Association Board of Directors created the “Dr. Josetta Brittain Matthews Memorial Endowed Scholarship” to support Auburn’s goal of “promoting diversity, equity and inclusion among its student body.” The scholarship will provide support to undergraduate students whose financial need makes attendance at Auburn cost prohibitive.
“Eagle Hall is home to Auburn’s Honors College students, so how fitting to name this particular residence hall in honor of someone who devoted her life to education, all the while blazing a trail for those who would follow her,” said Bobby Woodard, senior vice president for Student Affairs. “The students who live here are some of our best and brightest—eager to learn and grow as they complete their degrees at Auburn. Many of these students will go on to be lifelong educators and leaders, much like the building’s new namesake, Dr. Matthews.
“Today, we will officially name this building Josetta Brittain Matthews Hall, and it is an honor to be here with you all as we witness it together.”
The Auburn Board of Trustees voted on the naming initiative at its Feb. 5 meeting, and Wednesday’s Matthews Hall ceremony was the second celebration in as many weeks. Tiger Hall was renamed in honor of Bessie Mae Holloway, Auburn’s first Black Board of Trustees member, in a similar celebration on April 16.
The Trustee Task Force recommended last year that the Student Center be renamed in honor of Harold D. Melton, Auburn’s first Black Student Government president and chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. The official name change in November made the Melton Student Center the first building at Auburn named for an African American.
Auburn’s latest efforts to evaluate the history and context of its named buildings and structures is part of a larger initiative by Auburn to promote opportunity and equity. The university is committed to advancing inclusion and diversity as core values and is focused on several initiatives in that endeavor, to include addressing disparities in recruitment and retention of students, faculty and staff from underrepresented areas, as well as the implementation of a campus-wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Education and Training program.