Endangered Black History

This is the description

By Ken Raymond, Staff Writer

O brothers mine, today we stand
Where half a century sweeps our ken,
Since God, through Lincoln's ready hand,
Struck off our bonds and made us men.

Just fifty years — a winter's day —
As runs the history of a race;
Yet, as we look back o'er the way,
How distant seems our starting place!

Look farther back! Three centuries!
To where a naked, shivering score,
Snatched from their haunts across the seas,
Stood, wild-eyed, on Virginia's shore.

Far, far the way that we have trod,
From heathen kraals and jungle dens,
To freedmen, freemen, sons of God,
Americans and Citizens.

— From "Fifty Years," by James Weldon Johnson

Clara Luper, seated, poses for a photo with her daughter Marilyn, in the Oklahoma History Center's display of the Katz Drug Store where the sit-in occurred 50 years ago, Tuesday, August, 19, 2008.
Clara Luper, seated, poses for a photo with her daughter Marilyn, in the Oklahoma History Center's display of the Katz Drug Store where the sit-in occurred 50 years ago, Tuesday, August, 19, 2008.

Photo by David McDaniel, The Oklahoman

Share this on Facebook

ndepth series brought to you by newsok advertisers

Last year, Oklahoma said goodbye to a champion of civil rights.

Clara Luper, who led the nation's first sit-ins to protest segregation at Oklahoma City drugstore lunch counters in 1958, died June 8.

In numerous interviews over the years, Luper said she didn't know she was making history; she simply was trying to right a fundamental wrong, pushing for a small measure of equality.

Her actions — and those of the others who stood up by sitting down — broke through the color barrier and advanced civil rights, helping to make similar mistreatment unthinkable to the generations that followed.

Things haven't always gone smoothly. The path of change winds over more mountains than plains. But the journey has progressed.

"Look at how far we've come," said Currie Ballard, an authority on Oklahoma‘s black history. "Look where we are today compared with 50 (to) 100 years ago."

That's not as easy as it sounds. The past slips further behind with each step into the future. Already, some aspects of Oklahoma's black heritage have vanished, gone for good or hinted at by just a few surviving mementos. Think of it as endangered history; if not for people like Ballard, community elders and operators of historical museums, it could fade from memory.

Guthrie, for example, once was home to a black Catholic college, but you won‘t find the school on a map. All that's left are two report cards and a graduation booklet. If you live in Oklahoma City, Guthrie or Langston, you've probably driven on a street named after the school's founder, Sister Drexel.

A view of Oklahoma Avenue in Guthrie Oklahoma circa 1937
A view of Oklahoma Avenue in Guthrie Oklahoma circa 1937

Photo from The Oklahoman archive

Oklahoma City's Deep Deuce — once home to Pulitzer Prize winner Ralph Ellison and legendary jazz clubs, street parties and parades — has been reinvented as an upscale neighborhood. Its past is buried beneath new brick walls.

Oklahoma author Ralph Ellison.
Oklahoma author Ralph Ellison.

Photo provided

Change isn't a bad thing. But as Johnson wrote in the poem above, penned 50 years after emancipation, it's easy to lose track of the destination if you forget where the journey began.

Today and throughout February, The Oklahoman and NewsOK will remember. We will share stories of black history, going all the way back to the time before statehood. With Ballard as our guide, we'll provide a travelogue of sorts to important sites within about an hour's drive of Oklahoma City.

We'll take you to two of Oklahoma's original black towns, Langston and Boley. The former is home to the nation's westernmost historically black university. The latter, once the state's most important black community, now struggles to survive.

We'll visit Guthrie, former site of Claver College and a neighborhood known as Little Africa. Closer to home, we'll explore the Capitol and Oklahoma City, including the Oklahoma History Center, where an exhibit on Luper's legacy can be found.

Johnson, a leader of the early National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had no direct ties to Oklahoma. But he could've been describing Luper and the black experience in our state. His poem continues:

"A part of His unknown design,
We've lived within a mighty age;
And we have helped to write a line
On history's most wondrous page."

Currie Ballard: A look back, from the future

Walking along certain Oklahoma streets takes you to a ‘Twilight Zone' of black history.

Major parts of Oklahoma's black history are visible, but the meanings are hidden in the buildings along NE 2 in Oklahoma City.

By Currie Ballard, For The Oklahoman

The director of research for the Oklahoma Historical Society talks about how the group has made an effort to highlight Black History in Oklahoma, something the organization neglected to do in the past.

Video produced by Paige Dillard

As a child of the 1960s, one of my family's favorite TV shows was Rod Serling's science fiction series "The Twilight Zone" on CBS.

The unique introduction to the CBS show referred to a wondrous world that existed in another dimension, the "Twilight Zone."

That's how I imagine a child walking with his parents along NE 2 Street in Oklahoma City 60 years from now might feel as he views some of the sites that are important to Oklahoma's black history — that he has entered another dimension "as timeless as infinity," as "The Twilight Zone's" first season noted in its introduction.

In this imagined future scenario, the child sees the building with the word "Haywood" on the front and asks what it is. His parents don't know. Walking farther west, the child asks his parents about a larger building that says "Little Page" on it. Again, the parents don't know.

Finally, the two get to the top of the street and see a building with stained glass. For the third time, the child asks what it is and for the third time, his parents say, "I don't know."

Instead of the "Twilight Zone," the pair from the future entered the reality of what will happen if present-day Oklahomans don't share their own history and make sure it is recorded.

The street where the imaginary parents and child are walking, NE 2nd, was once known as "Deep Deuce," the heart of the black business and entertainment district of Oklahoma City.

Dr. William L. Haywood built the first building in question. He came to Oklahoma by chance, according to Oklahoma City municipal leader Jimmy Stewart. After graduating from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., Haywood was going to practice medicine in California, but on the train he got so sick that the conductor thought he was going to die and deposited him in Guthrie. He met Dr. Conrad and later Dr. Slaughter.

Then Haywood made history: He founded the first black hospital west of the Mississippi River, in Oklahoma City in 1908. It was named Utopia.

J.S. Little Page built the Little Page Hotel in 1920.

The building with the stained glass was built as Calvary Baptist Church, founded in October 1890 and moved to its present location in 1923. Black architect and Tuskegee graduate, R.H. Bingham, designed it. The church began as one of the hubs of leadership and became the only location in the state where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited. In fact, he came to this church twice. The first time in the early 1950s, when he applied for the pastor's position and then a second time in the early 1960s for a freedom rally in which he spoke.

In 1958, Clara Luper organized one of the nation's first sit-ins from this church.

My hat goes off to County Commissioner Willa Johnson, for her efforts for placing some history markers in the sidewalk and Anita Arnold of BLAC Inc. for authoring several books on the history of "Deep Deuce."

However, this national treasure of history needs a grand-scale, high-tech approach that will be interactive with the visitor, literally carrying you back in time like the 1960 movie "The Time Machine."

Remember the year is 2072, you are in downtown Oklahoma City, Langston, Guthrie or Boley, and the question is raised, "What did black people do in the 1920s, and what was Oklahoma like when it came to race relations?"

Today and over the next few weeks, in these pages and online, The Oklahoman's Ken Raymond and I explore the answers to these questions. We'll visit key places to Oklahoma's black history and tell their stories through photos, videos and stories in The Oklahoman and at NewsOK.com.

Historian Currie Ballard talking about African American history to reporters on the floor of the Senate at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012.
Historian Currie Ballard talking about African American history to reporters on the floor of the Senate at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012.

Photo by Paul B. Southerland, The Oklahoman

Share your memories of and thoughts on preserving Oklahoma's black history

Over the next month, as The Oklahoman and NewsOK explore key places and events in Oklahoma's black history, we would like to invite you to share your thoughts and memories.

How should these sites be preserved? How can Oklahoma's black history be shared with others in the future? What historical events do you remember?

Please email featuresdesk@opubco.com with your thoughts, opinions and ideas, or leave a comment below. We plan to use reader comments in a story at the end of this project.