KOKOMO, Ind. — Earning Indiana University degrees gave Franklin and Cora Smith Breckenridge a platform, which they used to do their part in the Civil Rights movement.
While serving as leaders — Franklin Breckenridge was president of Indiana’s NAACP State Conference of 21 Branches for 23 years, while Cora Smith Breckenridge completed three terms as the first African-American member of the Indiana University Board of Trustees — they also gave financially, with a scholarship to IU Kokomo. Friends began the scholarship in honor of Cora’s election to the trustees, and the couple contributed to endow it – to be given each year – with preference to minority students.
“IU allowed us to be educated, to become the type of people we are, and has enabled us to participate and grow and be helpful, and work to erase the racism, discrimination, and inequality that has been the burden and the situation in which we have been as African Americans in this country since our ancestors were brought here as slaves,” Franklin said.
During Black Philanthropy Month, they hope their example inspires others in their community to give what they can, to benefit the next generation and continue the fight for equality in America.
“It seems to me there’s still a need for people to establish scholarships and make it possible for Black students to progress through college and become participating members of our society,” Franklin added, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees from IU. “Education is how we continue to erase the systemic racism in our country.”
Both emphasize they did not come from wealthy or educated families, which would make it easy for them to give — her parents worked in the cotton fields of Alabama before moving to East Chicago, Indiana, where they met and married in 1930. His parents were born in Kokomo and did not receive a high school education.
Cora recalled how scholarships and small gifts made it possible for her to go to college in the 1950s, first at the IU Extension at Calumet, and then IU Bloomington where she met Franklin. When she came home on breaks, family and friends would put a dollar or two in her hands, doing what they could to help her.
Now, she recalls with great fondness graduating debt free, thanks to those small contributions, along with her summer job as a recreation supervisor for the East Chicago Parks Department, and a $200 scholarship from Tri Kappa.
“All of those people impacted our lives, and now we have a duty and an obligation to impact the lives of the young people who come behind us,” she said. “It means a lot to us. Not only did we take, but we have given.”
Their family values education and service, and they are proud of their own IU degrees — two each — and that all three of their children and their oldest granddaughter are also IU degree recipients.
Both have served professionally and in the Civil Rights movement. Cora was a speech language pathologist in Indianapolis, Kokomo, East Chicago, and Elkhart, in addition to her terms as a trustee. Franklin worked to integrate the Indiana State Police, while both marched and led the fight to get minorities appointed to judicial positions in Indiana.
Franklin Breckenridge began his career as a teacher in the Kokomo schools, but the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, who was accused of flirting with a white woman, propelled him to enroll in IU’s McKinney School of Law, Indianapolis.
“When I viewed the body of Emmett Till in the casket, I made up my mind I was going to try do something to keep that from happening to any other Black boy or man in this country,” he said. “l decided working as a lawyer and working in the system was the best way to do it. I’ve continued that work throughout the rest of my life.”
During his first semesters of law school, he was one of the first teachers in the new Head Start Program, responsible for finding a place to hold classes in the inner city of Indianapolis and going door to door to find and enroll students. He served as state president for the NAACP from 1978 to 2003 and was vice chairman for its national organization 1995-1996. Cora and Franklin both served for 12 years each on the National Board of the NAACP.
“It’s been a whole long process,” Franklin said. “We’ve been through the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case and participated in getting the Civil Rights Act signed by President Johnson and the other civil rights laws passed in this country.”
While Cora is retired, Franklin continues to work as an attorney in Elkhart, though he did retire as a pastor. However, he said, there is still work to be done.
They are inspired by the example of former congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, who passed away in July. He was pushing for reinstating measures removed from the Voting Rights Discrimination Act in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which now allows for voter suppression.
They agreed with John Lewis, before he died, that he was trying to get voter rights re-established, Franklin Breckenridge said.
“That is his unfinished business, and that’s part of the business of all of us who are still alive and fighting.”
Governor Eric Holcomb officially designated August as Black Philanthropy Month in Indiana, at the request of the IU Black Philanthropy Circle. Black Philanthropy Month is a global celebration and concerted campaign to elevate African descent giving.
As part of the designation, people and communities are encouraged to promote the power of giving to transform lives; celebrate the extraordinary legacy of philanthropy; highlight important stories; spotlight good work; and inspire giving, understanding, and generosity in support of improving social, educational, economic, and health outcomes in Black communities.
Franklin and Cora exemplify the spirit of Black Philanthropy Month, with their many years of service. In addition, they set the example by giving both financially and of their time, to smooth the path for those coming behind them.