Stories of the Ages: Endangered black history - Oklahoma State Capitol Building

Okahoma State Capitol was venue for battles over segregation and civil rights

Currie Ballard talks about the first law passed in Oklahoma, which was a 'Jim Crow' law.

Video produced by Paige Dillard

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On Feb. 5, 2008, the Oklahoma Senate passed Concurrent Resolution 49 — an unglamorous title for a document apologizing for decades of prejudice and abuse.

By a unanimous vote, 48-0, the predominantly white Senate denounced the segregation laws that shaped race relations for much of the 20th century.

The resolution declared that the state Legislature, "at the dawn of a new centennial, repudiates the concepts and ideas behind Jim Crow laws passed a century ago ... and declares these laws and all their vestiges abhorrent and repugnant to today's Chambers."

What a difference 101 years makes.

On Nov. 16, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a proclamation establishing Oklahoma as the nation's 46th state.

"Roosevelt had just one requirement for admitting Oklahoma into the union," said black historian Currie Ballard, speaking at the state Capitol. "The state could not adopt Jim Crow segregation laws."

In truth, the situation was more complicated. A vast majority of whites in the territories favored a division of the races. Newspapers of that era fed the fervor, depicting blacks as mentally and morally inferior and unable to discern their own best interests.

Such impressions weren't limited to the territories, however. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court established the "separate but equal" policy in its Plessy v. Ferguson decision; the Colored Agricultural and Normal University, which would become Langston University, was created a year later. The black school's curriculum mirrored that at Oklahoma State University, but Langston's funding, while separate, was never equal.

As Oklahoma neared statehood, the main concern at the federal level was providing blacks with separate rail cars and waiting areas at stations. Most Democratic delegates to Oklahoma's constitutional convention had pledged to support separate travel provisions.

It is likely that segregation, at least regarding transportation, would've been written into the state's constitution if not for Roosevelt's known opposition to it. Instead, such provisions were axed from the proposed constitution, and when it was approved by Roosevelt, segregation fell to the new state's government, which took up the task with aplomb.

Barely a month after statehood, the Oklahoma Legislature — operating in Guthrie, the original capital — passed Senate Bill One. The state's first law, which easily passed both houses, required separate rail cars for whites and blacks.

From that seed grew a bitter tree. Racial prejudice, already deeply rooted in the South, extended its branches into every aspect of Oklahoma life.

"There were restrictions placed on where African-Americans could live. ... They couldn't move beyond those streets and communities, so the African-American community became very, very self-sufficient," said Bruce Fisher, administrative programs officer at the Oklahoma History Center.

Laws passed banning blacks from marrying outside their race or using the same payphones as whites. Voting rights were stripped away. Educators could lose their teaching certificates or be fined for instructing white and black students in the same school. Everything was divided and limited.

It was a remarkable turnaround.

Less than two decades before, blacks had found in the Oklahoma and Indian territories homes free from most of the privations and dangers of the Confederate states. They'd acquired vast tracts of land and built their own communities, complete with their own elected municipal officials and their own lawmen.

"For a time, fluid social relationships existed between black and white settlers in the territories, despite a history of slavery in pre-Civil War Indian Territory," Jimmie Lewis Franklin wrote in the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. "White migration from the deep South and the increasing number of blacks led to restrictive racial laws and customs. The growing economic success of blacks in particular affected race relations. ...

"By the turn of the twentieth century, black workers began to compete for jobs reserved for whites in the territories' cities. ... The irrational belief by whites of possible black domination in the state, fear of economic competition and efforts to silence blacks politically, helped to foster an atmosphere for violence."

In 1921, that tension climaxed with the Tulsa race riots. Violence erupted after a white woman accused a black man of making advances toward her in a Tulsa elevator. He fled but was arrested, Franklin wrote, and when a group of blacks headed for the jail after hearing he might be lynched, the stage was set for tragedy. The blacks were confronted by a group of whites, who ultimately burned down much of the black community in Tulsa, destroying homes and businesses and killing an untold number of victims.

In its March 1967 edition, Ebony magazine cited Oklahoma's 1965 law requiring black history to be taught in schools. Similar measures passed in California and Michigan. The Ebony article, 'The Negro in Textbooks: Reading, 'Riting and Racism' highlighted a key problem: the need for new textbooks that portrayed blacks in a more accurate and favorable light.
In its March 1967 edition, Ebony magazine cited Oklahoma's 1965 law requiring black history to be taught in schools. Similar measures passed in California and Michigan. The Ebony article, "The Negro in Textbooks: Reading, 'Riting and Racism," highlighted a key problem: the need for new textbooks that portrayed blacks in a more accurate and favorable light.

Photo provided

"We inherited some good, some bad and some ugly from all over the country," Ballard said. "Unfortunately, Jim Crow became that beacon of hate to say one group is better than another, and we're going to codify that by law. That was an evil, an evil that set this state back for many a decade."

Blacks fought for equality from the beginning and achieved significant goals. Black newspapers, notably Roscoe Dunjee's Black Dispatch, kept pressure on the government to end its oppressive policies, Ballard said. In 1948, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher won her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, eventually gaining admission to the University of Oklahoma law school.

By 1958, when Clara Luper launched her Oklahoma City sit-in movement, school segregation effectively had been overturned by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. Other successes followed as the civil rights movement under Martin Luther King, Jr. swept the nation.

The crowning achievement was the passage of the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act, which eradicated segregation in all public spheres. Locally, Oklahoma took another big step in 1965, when Gov. Henry Bellmon signed House Bill 876 into law, requiring elementary and secondary schools to teach black history.

Prejudice didn't vanish along with segregation, but at least blacks and whites were now on something closer to even footing, and race relations have improved over the past 47 years.

That's why Concurrent Resolution 49 is so important. Authored by white state Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee, the resolution closed the door on Oklahoma's racist past — not by hiding it away, but by openly acknowledging that Jim Crow laws were loathsome and indefensible.

The resolution was "extremely well-received" by the black community, Ballard said.

"I know Sen. Garrison personally. ... As far as I'm concerned, this was the crowning height of his legislative ability. Now, he might not think that," Ballard said, laughing, "but it means that much to me."

WHAT TO SEE

The Capitol building is the hub of the state's legislative power. Bills are introduced, debated and signed into law — or cast aside, many to resurface later in a slightly altered form. Many of the state's Jim Crow laws were enacted when the capital was in Guthrie, but the Capitol building in Oklahoma City is the symbolic home of the fight for civil rights. With its extensive art holdings and architectural beauty, the Capitol is one of the most historic structures in Oklahoma — and one well worth seeing.

Capitol building

The state Capitol dome in Oklahoma City, as seen in November 2011. The dome was in the original designs for the Capitol, but for most of its existence, it was domeless. The new dome and the statue that stands at its pinnacle were dedicated in 2002.
The state Capitol dome in Oklahoma City, as seen in November 2011. The dome was in the original designs for the Capitol, but for most of its existence, it was domeless. The new dome and the statue that stands at its pinnacle were dedicated in 2002.

Photo by Paul Southerland, The Oklahoman

Construction of the Capitol began in 1914. It was completed three years later. Semi-completed may be a better way to put it, though. The original plans called for the construction of a Capitol dome, but the State Capitol Commission decided not to build a dome because it would be too expensive. It took the better part of a century before the state had the money and political will to erect a dome. It was dedicated in 2002 and is surmounted by "The Guardian," a 22-foot bronze sculpture by Enoch Kelly Haney.

The Capitol's architecture has been described by other writers as Beaux Arts, Greco-Roman, Renaissance and Classical Revival. Whatever you call it, the Capitol is a grand old structure with a sweeping exterior staircase (that is no longer used for security reasons), numerous pillars, hidden nooks and ancient elevators, which sometimes take so long to open that it's best to arrive 15 minutes early for appointments. According to TravelOK.com, the Capitol has 650 rooms and 11 acres of floor space. Art works, including sculptures, paintings and stained glass windows, can be seen throughout the building.

If you visit, stop for a moment on the fourth floor and try to find Room 426. That location, used for years as a snack bar, was a law school in the late 1940s — a law school that never saw use. When she was 21, Ada Fisher agreed to be the test case challenging university segregation laws. A graduate of Langston University, she wanted to attend law school at the University of Oklahoma. Her academic records qualified her for admission, but she was excluded under Jim Crow. Working with a young Thurgood Marshall, she filed a lawsuit and appealed it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she won. The Court ruled that Oklahoma had to provide her with the same access to a law school as any white student would have.

Rather than admitting her to OU, however, "the legislative leadership, the speaker of the house, the pro temps of the Senate and the governor met," Ballard said. "Their decision was to form a separate law school for Langston University at the state Capitol in room 426. The amount of the appropriation was $15,000. It was for a three-room suite with personnel, a dean and a secretary."

It was a waste of money. Fisher refused to study at the makeshift law school. That ignited another round of lawsuits, but Oklahoma officials finally blinked. She was admitted to OU about three years after she first had applied; the Capitol's law school shut down, and another barrier to equal rights disappeared.

Art

Artist Simmie Knox in a file photo from October 2003. Knox painted four portraits of black notables; the paintings hang in the state Capitol.
Artist Simmie Knox in a file photo from October 2003. Knox painted four portraits of black notables; the paintings hang in the state Capitol.

Photo by Amelia Knox

Art consumes about 4,400 square feet of the Capitol's space. Two collections are housed there: the State Capitol Collection includes more than 100 works depicting Oklahoma's historic events, landscapes and people. The Oklahoma State Art Collection is comprised of works by people who lived, studied or had a close connection with the state; their work does not necessarily depict Oklahoma.

Among the Capitol Collection holdings are five portraits of prominent black leaders: Ada Fisher, Dunjee, Benjamin Harrison Hill, Albert Comstock "A.C." Hamlin and Edward P. McCabe. The portraits hang on the fourth floor.

Fisher, of course, challenged university segregation and became a successful educator. Dunjee was the firebrand editor of the Black Dispatch newspaper and a guiding force in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. McCabe was one of the founders of the city of Langston.

Hill — a pastor, teacher, principal and journalist — was elected to the state House in 1968. Hamlin was also a legislator; in 1908, in the midst of post-statehood racial disharmony, he became the first black elected to state office.

All of the paintings except Fisher's were done by Simmie Knox, who painted the official portrait of Pres. Bill Clinton. He is the first black artist ever commissioned to paint a president's official portrait.

"Knox is very well-known nationally and is an extremely talented artist," said Amber Sharples of the Oklahoma Arts Council. "We are very fortunate to have four of his portraits in the Capitol Collection."

Bruce Fisher inspects the portrait of his mother, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, at its dedication ceremony at the Capitol in 2007.
Bruce Fisher inspects the portrait of his mother, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, at its dedication ceremony at the Capitol in 2007.

Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman

A sixth portrait is about to be added to the group. John Hope Franklin, a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, graduated from a Tulsa high school before becoming one of the nation's foremost historians and civil rights advocates. His portrait will be dedicated at 10 a.m. Feb. 22. The artist, Everett Raymond Kinstler, will speak; Kinstler is an internationally known New York City artist who has painted portraits of seven presidents.

Three pieces by black artists in the State Art Collection currently are on display. Look for works by Wallace Owens, Melvin Smith and Rose Smith in the Betty Price Gallery on the Capitol's first floor.

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.