Women Freedom Fighters: Pioneering the Frontier of Civil Rights in Oklahoma
African American history reflects the remarkable changes in the way scholars imagine the West. While there is much written on African Americans in the South and history of the Freedmen are making their way to the forefront, histories on civil rights in Oklahoma appears to be lacking. Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street, Jimmie Lewis Franklin’s Journey Toward Hope: A History of Blacks in Oklahoma, and Arthur Tolson’s The Black Oklahomans: A History each specifically address civil rights, racism, and the legal system in Oklahoma. Thankfully, autobiographies such as Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher’s A Matter of Black and White and Clara Luper’s Behold These Walls give valuable insight into the fight for equality in Oklahoma. McGuire takes an in depth look at the origins of Civil Rights and the important role that women played while Arthur Tolson investigates all Oklahomans that helped further the movement. Journey Towards Hope is a personal story of people and the contributions they made to improve their lives and their communities, improving their country in the process. With help from these historians, autobiographies, archival collections, newspapers, and journal articles, a clear portrait of the intense fight for racial equality in Oklahoma can be painted.
Education would be the first line to be cross in the fight for equal rights in Oklahoma. After a long and egregious battle the Supreme Court ruled on January 12, 1948, in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, that Oklahoma must provide Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher with the same opportunities in education as other Oklahomans. This also led to a lawsuit, brought about by Thurgood Marshall and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to eliminate the doctrine that formed the basis for state-sanctioned discrimination and in turn the US Supreme Court struck down the ‘separate but equal’ actions that were being practiced in lieu of her admittance. In the next three decades, civil rights activists, such as Clara Luper and Ada Lois Sipuel-Fisher, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophies of non-violent protest to challenge the inequality in Oklahoma.
Founded by Oklahoman Roscoe Dunjee, the NAACP sought to challenge the principles of legal segregation. The Brown v. Board of Education decision established a precedent for future lawsuits against unjust law aimed at African Americans. This could only work when African Americans, working alone or in local groups, faced the dangers of crossing racial obstacles. Black activism became the only way to extend equality from the schools to every day life. In 1948, the NAACP decided to make a test case against segregation in schools in Oklahoma and one woman was willing to accept that challenge.
Ada Lois Sipuel was born in in 1924 in Chickasaw, Oklahoma. She graduated at the top of her high school class in 1941. Although she had a happy childhood, she was not immune to the tales of racism and violence that ran rampant in Oklahoma. The last recorded lynching in Oklahoma happened in Chickasaw. An innocent teenage boy, Henry Argo, had been falsely accused of rape and attempted murder. A mob of 2,000 turned up at the Grady County jail to lynch Argo. An angry mob swarmed the jail with the intent of exacting their punishment on the boy. The lynch mob finally reached Argo and where they shot and stabbed the boy to death and left him to die. No one was ever prosecuted in the case.
After high school Sipuel left Oklahoma to attend college at Arkansas A&M. She spent one year there before returning to attend Langston University, where she graduated with honors in 1946. Ada had dreams of becoming a lawyer one day, but unfortunately Langston did not have a law school, and state laws barred African Americans from going to state universities. Instead, Oklahoma provided funding whereby black students could attend law schools and graduate schools that accepted blacks outside of the state of Oklahoma. At the encouragement of Roscoe Dunjee, Fisher agreed to seek admission to the University of Oklahoma [OU] law school in order to challenge Oklahoma's segregation laws and achieve her lifelong ambition of becoming a lawyer. On January 14, 1946, she applied for admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
Norman had long been known as a sundown town. In fact, many residents boasted about how blacks knew better than to hang around in Norman. Fisher knew she would never get accepted on her first application to OU and this was part of the NAACP’s plan to challenge legal segregation in Oklahoma. Dr. George Lynn Cross, the university's president, agreed to meet her and Roscoe Dunjee. Cross had his dean of admissions review Fisher's credentials in which he later advised her that although she more than met the academic requirements for admission, state law forbade him to allow her entrance to OU on the premise that blacks and whites could not attend classes together. The laws also made it a misdemeanor to instruct or attend classes comprised of mixed races. Cross could have been fined up to fifty dollars a day, and the white students who attended class with her would have been fined up to twenty dollars a day. Fisher and Dunjee did not seem surprised at his response, but rather requested to have the dismissal in writing. What they wanted specifically was to have the document state that she was denied admittance to her race and this would form the platform for their legal action against school desegregation. State officials had previously briefed Cross on how to handle any African American students that attempted to gain admittance to OU. Reportedly the discussed response to give black students was that Langston was not an accredited university and therefore on that basis were not eligible for enrollment at OU.
On April 6, 1946, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher filed a lawsuit in the Cleveland County District Court and in turn began a three-year legal battle. The NAACP sent down Thurgood Marshall to join the Amos Hall in the defense of Fisher. Cleveland County court saw no reason to oppose the decision of the university and denied her case. She then appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which sustained the ruling of the lower court. They decision asserted that the state's policy of segregating whites and blacks in education did not violate the federal constitution and was in accordance with the state constitution of Oklahoma. The court also claimed that it was the duty of Langston University and the Board of Regents for Higher Education’s responsibility to provide African Americans a law school and facilities for instruction equal to those enjoyed by white students but that it was the Regents were entitled to reasonable advance notice of the intention of black students to need such facilities. Fisher and the NAACP found this to be unacceptable and were fully prepared to take their case to the highest courts.
With defiance and justice in their hearts, Fisher and her team of attorneys filed suit with the US Supreme Court. On January 12, 1948 the nation's highest tribunal declared the lower courts to be wrong. They stated that in the case of Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma that Oklahoma must provide Fisher with the same opportunities for securing a legal education as it provided to other citizens of Oklahoma. Remanded to the Cleveland County District Court, they were instructed to carry out the ruling. They did not. It was at this time, that six other African Americans attempted enrollment at OU and were denied admission on the same basis. Out of these six, the NAACP chose George McLaurin as an additional candidate to submit briefs to the state courts challenging state sanctioned discrimination.
Although the Supreme Court ruling was in favor of Fisher, the state legislature, rather than admit Fisher to the Oklahoma University law school decided to create a separate law school exclusively for her to attend. The new school, named Langston University School of Law, was a haphazard, poorly put together school that only took five days to put together and was set up in one of the State Capitol's Senate rooms.
To Fisher, this substandard school was an affront to her and the education she sought. She refused to attend Langston University School of Law. They had provided only three professors and not near enough time to develop an adequate plan of study. On March 15, 1948, her lawyers filed a motion in the Cleveland County District Court contending that Langston's law school did not provide the advantages of a legal education to blacks substantially equal to the education whites received at OU's law school. The argument was that this inequality entitled Fisher to be admitted to the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Unfortunately, the Cleveland County Court ruled against her again arguing that the school was, in fact, equal. Not to anyone’s surprise, the Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the ruling.
After this second unfavorable ruling, Fisher's lawyers declared their intent to appeal to the US Supreme Court. Oklahoma Attorney General Mac Q. Williamson declined to return to Washington, DC and face the same nine Supreme Court justices in order to argue that Langston's law school was equal to OU's law school. It was apparent that the US Supreme Court would hand down the same ruling as before, ordering them to provide Fisher access. Due to their unwillingness to return to Washington DC, this concession led to the decision to allow Ada Lois Sipuel admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law. More than three years after she first applied for admission, on June 18, 1949, she was admitted. Langston University's law school closed twelve days later.
Fisher did not experience much racism from her fellow classmates. In fact, many personally introduced themselves and offered her congratulations on her admittance welcomed her. However, in class she was forced to sit in the back of the room in a single desk behind a wooden railing with a large sign that read “Colored”. Even though black students could now be admitted to OU, separate eating facilities, bathrooms, classroom seating, and even seating at school sporting events pervaded. These conditions persisted through 1950.
On June 5, 1950, the US Supreme Court decision in the case of McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, the Court ruled that the restrictions of segregation imposed on McLaurin at OU impaired and inhibited his ability to study and were therefore illegal. The unanimous decision meant that no longer could classes be segregated at OU. This also required for admittance to graduate programs in all state-supported colleges and universities in the nation. This was the beginning of the end for segregation in Oklahoma. Regents and lawmakers alike saw that no longer could they create separate and subpar education for African American students seeking higher education. In her autobiography, A Matter of Black and White, Fisher states: For two and a half years on intense litigation, I had been the guinea pig, the slender, almost shy “colored” girl from a small rural community who dared challenge the power and resources of the sovereign state of Oklahoma. The litigation was finally over. As I sat alone in one of the enormous classrooms of Monnet Hall, I realized I was still the guinea pig.
After a strenuous four years, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher achieved her Master’s degree in law. She went on to have a successful career as lawyers, became a department chair at Langston University before retiring in 1987 as the assistant vice president for academic affairs. In 1992, Governor David Walters posthumously righted the wrongs afflicted on Ada Lois Sipuel by appointing her to the Board of Regents at the University of Oklahoma. She the person to ever be awarded the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in the school’s history as was Dr. George Lynn Cross. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher braved a fight not many could have handled, let alone a “skinny black girl”. She became a role model not only for African Americans, but women as well. With the help of the NAACP and George McLaurin, Fisher broke down educational walls in Oklahoma to allow a higher education for many other African American students in the future. It is hardly ever acknowledged how she was a woman willing to take on a fight that no man had the guts to do till several years later with George McLaurin. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher became Oklahoma’s first female civil rights leader.
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