In 1946 a young woman named Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher (1924–1995) was denied admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law because she was African American. The OU law school was an all-white institution in a town where African Americans could work and shop as long as they got out before sundown. But if segregation was entrenched in Norman, so was the determination of black Oklahomans who had survived slavery to stake a claim in the territory. This was the tradition that Ada Lois Sipuel sprang from, a tradition and determination that would sustain her through the slow, tortuous path of litigation to gaining admission to law school. A Step toward Brown v. Board of Education—the first book to tell Fisher’s full story—is at once an inspiring biography and a remarkable chapter in the history of race and civil rights in America.
Cheryl Elizabeth Brown Wattley gives us a richly textured picture of the black-and-white world from which Ada Lois Sipuel and her family emerged. Against this Oklahoma background Wattley shows Sipuel (who married Warren Fisher a year before she filed her suit) struggling against a segregated educational system. Her legal battle is situated within the history of civil rights litigation and race-related jurisprudence in the state of Oklahoma and in the nation. Hers was a test case organized by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and, as precedent, strike another blow against “separate but equal” public education.
Fisher served as both a litigant, with Thurgood Marshall for counsel, and, later, a litigator; both a plaintiff and an advocate for the NAACP; and both a student and, ultimately, a teacher of the very history she had helped to write. In telling Fisher’s story, Wattley also reveals a time and a place undergoing a profound transformation spurred by one courageous woman taking a bold step forward.
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A Step toward Brown v. Board of Education
Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher and Her Fight to End Segregation
By Cheryl Elizabeth Brown Wattley
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
Ada Lois's Oklahoma
In January 1946, when Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher applied to the University of Oklahoma School of Law (OU Law), the city of Norman—the university's home—was lily-white. No African Americans lived there. It had been a traditional all-white city almost since its beginning. The few blacks who had dared to try to live in Norman were physically run out of the city.
During Norman's earliest days, beginning with its formal incorporation in 1891, blacks were not even welcome as laborers. A white contractor filed a lawsuit alleging that in 1898 he had been severely beaten, leaving his skull fractured and an eye permanently damaged, because he had brought a black worker to Norman. The town marshal, according to the contractor, watched the fight and encouraged the beating.
At the time of Ada Lois's application, Norman was firmly a sundown town. African Americans could work there during the day but had to be out of the city before the sun set. Signs and notices were posted in obvious locations, their words sending a very clear message: "Nigger, don't let the sun go down on you in this town." Except for the rare live-in housekeeper, the rule that blacks must leave at night was openly and strictly enforced.
If Ada Lois were to be admitted to OU Law, she could not live in the town where her classes would be held. If allowed in, she would have to be like Cinderella, forever mindful of the time of day because she would have to be out of the town before the sun went down. There was no place for "Negroes," as African Americans were called during that era, to live. There was no provision for segregated housing.
Open, blatant, and entrenched segregation was just one aspect of Oklahoma in the 1930s and '40s when Ada Lois Sipuel was growing up. But that segregation did not stand unopposed; it was countered by the steadfast determination of the African Americans who lived in Oklahoma. The tension between segregation and black determination, the conflict between oppression and dignity is woven throughout Oklahoma history. Out of such bitter racial animus arose impressive stories of resistance and endurance. Acts of persecution forged feats of survival. These were the stories that shaped Ada Lois's courage and tenacity as a black child born and raised in Oklahoma. These were the forces that shaped her determination and focus as she took up the mantle to attack segregated education.
In the 1830s, the forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes to land acquired by the U.S. government as part of the Louisiana Purchase resulted in the migration of numerous black slaves as well. As slaves to the Creek, Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes, they too suffered the forced relocation to Indian Territory (the eastern sections of present-day Oklahoma). They too walked the Trail of Tears, across the miles, through the forests and over the mountains.
But while black slaves may have crossed the same lands, their march was not the same. There was the added layer of subjugation, for they were the property of the tribes. They lived under the proscriptions of Indian slave codes. Indeed, white settlers viewed the tribes as more civilized if they had adopted the "institutionalized slavery" of the South.
Upon arrival in Indian Territory, the slaves cleared the forests, cultivated the crops, and tended the livestock. Although the tribes had differing systems and customs with respect to their slaves, ranging from allowing socialization and intermarriage to enforcing strict rules of segregation, there was never any doubt that they all adhered to a system of slavery. It was bondage, and the slaves rebelled against that captivity. In 1842 Cherokee slaves stole guns, ammunition, and supplies from their owners before unsuccessfully attempting an escape to Mexico and freedom. Some years later, Seminole slaves made a similar effort to flee to Mexico with approximately 180 slaves successfully crossing the border into Mexico.
When the Civil War began, the Confederacy viewed Indian Territory as the western frontier. Confederate officials actively recruited and courted the western Indians, and the ownership of slaves provided a common bond between the tribes and the Confederacy. By that time, there were approximately fourteen thousand slaves living in Indian Territory. Most of the tribes joined the Confederate cause, formed military units, and fought in battles in Arkansas and Missouri. For example, Stand Watie, a member of the Cherokee tribe, rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate Army.
At the same time that tribes were fighting on behalf of the Confederacy, units of black soldiers fought decisive battles that led to Union victory in Oklahoma Territory. The First Kansas Colored Volunteers Infantry, the first black regiment in the Union Army, fought at the Battles of Cabin Creek and Honey Springs in 1863. The regiment included slaves who had escaped from Indian Territory. The major general commanding the attack at Honey Springs gave special credit for the Union victory to the First Kansas soldiers, noting that they had "particularly distinguished themselves" with a "coolness and bravery" he had never before seen.
Black soldiers comprised the Tenth Calvary Regiment, which was established in 1866 and was stationed in Indian Territory. Years later, Henry O. Flipper, a former slave and the first black graduate of West Point, was assigned to the Tenth Calvary and stationed at Fort Sill, in southern Oklahoma. He had endured the "silent treatment"—a form of punishment—at the military academy, going through four years of study without any of his classmates speaking to him. Flipper was charged with the duty to interact with the tribes. He also worked as a civil engineer surveying the route for a road to Gainesville, Texas, and supervising its construction.
With the end of the Civil War, all of the Five Tribes were deemed by the U.S. government to have sided with the Confederacy, even though there had been division within some of the tribes. As a sanction for siding with the Confederacy, each of the tribes was forced to enter into a treaty requiring the relinquishment of some of its lands back to the United States. Significantly, the tribes were also required to abolish slavery and agree that slavery would never be reinstated except as punishment for a crime. Former slaves had to be granted both citizenship and tribal membership on an equal footing with Indian members. Former slaves also had to be granted allotments of land.
The tribes reacted differently to those requirements. Shortly after the adoption of the treaties, the Seminoles, Creeks, and Cherokees granted full citizenship to their former slaves, who became known as "freedmen." The Choctaws resisted the granting of citizenship rights to the freedmen for almost twenty years. The Chickasaws never granted citizenship to the freedmen.
But these treaties provided a foundation for the freedmen of the Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee tribes to receive land allotments, ranging from forty to more than one hundred acres. Land ownership provided them with the ability to farm, raise cattle, and become fairly self-sufficient. Banding together, working the nearby lands, the seeds of black townships were sown.
With the opening of Oklahoma Territory, the region west of Indian Territory, African Americans joined in the land runs, placing their dreams for a better future into the dash to claim a homestead. The promise of land led to the migration of emancipated slaves eagerly hoping to find land to start a new life out west. Advertisements touting the fertile land fanned the hopes of the former slaves. The freed slaves came to the Indian and Oklahoma territories in search of a new beginning, personal security, and economic opportunity. Building homes, towns, and communities, they began a new life.
In the years after the Civil War, more than fifty all-black townships were created in Oklahoma. Advertisements and solicitations encouraged blacks to come to towns populated by "intelligent, self-reliant colored people." By appealing to African Americans' fervent desire for opportunity, such advertisements encouraged migration. For instance, Edward P. McCabe actively recruited blacks to migrate to Langston. His paper, the Langston City Herald, openly announced that "active, energetic men and women with some money and plenty of push ... are wanted here. Come to our rescue, moneyed Negros, and we will demonstrate a fact long, oh so long questioned touching our capacity to build a city." T. M. Haynes, known as the founder of Boley, Oklahoma, posted an advertisement proclaiming that "Boley is the Largest Negro City in the Whole World."
These all-black towns were thriving, independent, and self-sustaining, with grocery stores, hotels, restaurants, funeral homes, cotton gins, banks, schools, and churches. Blacks attained professional positions as attorneys, doctors, dentists, and even deputy federal marshals. The towns thrived as agricultural and farming centers or as transportation centers with railroad depots and transfer stations. Self-governing, these towns promoted the development of leaders who helped foster political consciousness and racial pride in their communities. Organizations were created such as "The Territorial League," an all-black organization established for the betterment of social conditions. The black townships demanded respect and dignity. Indeed, in January 1904, a white railroad company president was arrested when he cursed a black man for not removing his hat upon entering a railroad office. These towns not only provided economic opportunity to their citizens, many of whom were only recently out of bondage, their very existence served as an affirmation of the determination, spirit, and abilities of the newly freed slaves.
Against the backdrop of prosperity and success in the all-black towns, and the settlement of black persons in designated areas of white towns that did not exclude them, segregation practices evolved. Expressions of racial animosity toward blacks by whites were blatant and open. In Blackwell, word went out that blacks could not reside inside the corporation limits. Notices were posted in Waurika and Lawton telling blacks to vacate the towns within twenty-four hours. Lawton and Norman had signs warning blacks that they were not welcome in those cities and that their presence would not be tolerated. The Citizens' Committee of Sapulpa put up signs advising blacks to leave because cowboys from neighboring towns were reportedly on their way to drive them out of town. Tulsa warned the Sapulpa Negroes not to stop in Tulsa.
A black member of the Guthrie City Council was ejected from a special railroad train as it was taking the governor and other territorial officials to St. Louis after there were objections to his presence. In defending the near shooting of a black man who carried money with him, a newspaper article bluntly declared that a "negro with money is insolent." A barn just northwest of Norman was burned down after the blacks who had received warning letters from the "Committy" had refused to leave. When a black man supposedly knocked on the door of a white woman, twenty or more white citizens went to the black section of town, forcing black residents out of their homes by shooting through their houses as they searched for the man so that they could lynch him.
To underscore its determination to segregate the races, Oklahoma set up a system of separate schools even before it became a state. Building on the policies of racial segregation already established by some Indian tribes, a formal territorial school code of segregation was passed in 1897. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior authorized the use of money to establish separate schools for black students in this area. Separation of the races became the law. In 1902, the Oklahoma chief justice ruled that even if there was only one black child in attendance, a separate school building and teacher had to be provided. To address any demand among blacks for higher education and to avoid any possibility of black students attending white colleges, Langston University, located in the black township of Langston, was established in 1897 as Oklahoma's institution for higher education of "colored students."
The requirement for separation of the races in education did not go unanswered, however. It gave rise in Oklahoma Territory to the Ida M. Wells Teachers' Association, an organization for black teachers. A similar organization was created in Indian Territory. The African American teachers who belonged to these organizations focused on getting better educational facilities and materials for their students. Keenly aware of the inadequacy of resources provided to their students, the segregated teacher associations became an insistent voice advocating on behalf of the black children in the territories.
As discussions exploring statehood began at the turn of the twentieth century, racial prejudices among whites became even more pronounced. Newspaper articles talked about black domination and fear of "Little Africa." One headline placed above a photograph of men dressed in the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan proclaimed that "these men made Negro domination impossible." Another newspaper headline read "Against the Negroes: Negro Domination Feared." When a black man filed to be the chairman of the Republican Party, the incumbent was described as "embarrassed and humiliated" and that "white Republicans from all sections of the state [were] greatly stirred up" by these actions. An Oklahoman headline reported that a South Carolina U.S. senator viewed Oklahoma blacks as "too saucy." In an effort to protect themselves from "Negro domination," white officials drew electoral districts to make it impossible for blacks to win elected office. An article reporting a speech by Charles Haskell, a candidate to be the first governor of Oklahoma, bore the headline "Dangers of Negro Domination Pointed Out in Forceful Talk: Is Not Oklahoma a White Man's State?" Another headline read "Black Boys in Control."
Just months before the establishment of statehood in 1907, a newspaper article praised a white candidate for his blunt statement that the "negro" should be kept in his place and that blacks should never expect to be treated equally. When a black was elected as a Republican candidate for office, there was an open call to white citizens to defect because the election of a black person "would be a blot upon the boasted Christian civilization of the Caucasian race and a rebuke to American manhood." The racially charged appeals to white voters were direct and blatant.
But blacks were not passive in the face of such appeals. As reported in the Daily Oklahoman, G. Napier Perkins, the editor of the black newspaper The Guide, published an editorial reminding residents of Guthrie that the black population, and consequently the black vote, was necessary for Guthrie to have the political strength to win the title of state capital. His editorial obviously hit a nerve; the Oklahoman responded to Perkins's editorial with the headline "Guthrie Negroes Making Threats: Whipping White Republicans into Line as Usual—Is White Blood Strong Enough?"
In addition to the pressure exerted by black newspapers against prevalent white racism, African Americans took other actions to secure their political rights in the new state. A resolution was passed opposing statehood for both the Oklahoma and Indian territories unless there could be a guarantee that there would not be any discrimination between the races. McCabe, who had sold his newspaper and subsequently was appointed to serve as state auditor, actively recruited support for legislation prohibiting any restriction on suffrage based upon race.
While Congress was considering the bill for Oklahoma's statehood, Senator Matt Quay of Pennsylvania proposed an amendment to address the problem of discrimination in Oklahoma. The proposed amendment provided that all residents of the territories would have the right to vote and that black residents would never be denied that right. Due to the passing of this amendment, the rights of black male residents to vote would be forever protected in Oklahoma.
McCabe, an active member in the Republican Party, wrote a "circular" letter to two of the most prominent African Americans in each of the northern states. He asked that these men petition their congressional delegations to use their influence to support the Quay Amendment and protect the right to vote of black men in Oklahoma should statehood occur. From these contacts he received responses and commitments from black leaders in North Carolina, Illinois, Washington, D.C., Kansas, Colorado, and New York.
Excerpted from A Step toward Brown v. Board of Education by Cheryl Elizabeth Brown Wattley. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
1. Ada Lois's Oklahoma,
2. Predecessors: The Early NAACP School Segregation Cases,
3. A "Natural" Plaintiff Courageously Steps Forward,
4. The Journey to the Supreme Court Ruling,
5. A Law School for Ada Lois in Just Seven Days,
6. Ada Lois's Law School on Trial,
7. While Ada Lois Fought and Waited,
8. At Long Last, Ada Lois Attends Law School,
9. The Legacy of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher,