Endangered black history: Oklahoma City

Past and present collide in Deep Deuce, Oklahoma History Center and more.

The importance of Deep Deuce in Oklahoma black history.

Video produced by Paige Dillard

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The bellhops at the city hotels and the bottlers at Jay-Kola all took their money to the same place: Deep Deuce, the heart of Oklahoma City's black community.

Barred from shopping at white stores or eating at white restaurants, blacks built their own business and entertainment center in the valley around the 300 block of NE 2. Residents and travelers found lodging in the hotels and rooming houses, and entrepreneurs provided services that otherwise would've been denied blacks.

"They couldn't move beyond certain streets," said Bruce Fisher, administrative programs officer for the Oklahoma Historical Society, "but within those streets, they had everything they needed, many shops and hotels, and when people would come to town, that's where they'd always go."

And why not? Deep Deuce — also called Deep Two and Deep Second — was home to happening night spots, drawing renowned jazz and blues musicians from all over the south. Local talent included Jimmy Rushing and Charlie Christian.

Deep Deuce, the 300 block of NE 2, can be seen in this undated photo. THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES
Deep Deuce, the 300 block of NE 2, can be seen in this undated photo.

The Oklahoman Archives

"The Blue Devils, a famous territorial band, called Second Street home," wrote Anita G. Arnold in the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture. "The Pulitzer Prize-winner Ralph Ellison grew up in the district. Deep Deuce was famous for parades, street dances, ... New Orleans-style funerals, and for a Thursday night tradition called 'maids night out,' a grand 'street' fashion show involving the whole community as either spectators or participants."

One of the most-loved nightclubs was Ruby's Grill, Fisher said.

The Jewel Theater building still stands at NE 4 and Laird Avenue in Oklahoma City.

The Jewel Theater building still stands at NE 4 and Laird Avenue in Oklahoma City. It was one of several businesses owned by the same black family.
The Jewel Theater building still stands at NE 4 and Laird Avenue in Oklahoma City. It was one of several businesses owned by the same black family.

Paul B. Southerland, The Oklahoman

"I read a report that said when it opened it was the finest club in the southwest," said Fisher, who remembers getting his hair cut in Deep Deuce as a boy. "It had air conditioning and soundproof rooms, and the big neon sign that was outside of it just glittered."

Sometimes black musicians performed for white audiences elsewhere in the city, then came back to Deep Deuce to jam in the black clubs. Crowds spilled into the street.

"Some of those jam sessions would just go on all through the night," Fisher said. "They would also have breakfast dances, when the party lasted all night long until the morning time and then they had breakfast and kept the party going."

It wasn't all about partying.

Roscoe Dunjee based his Black Dispatch newspaper in the midst of Deep Deuce, and from it launched an unprecedented assault against the forces of oppression.

"With the power of the press, Dunjee broke down the barriers of segregation in housing, education, transportation and public facilities," Arnold wrote. "Considered by many to be one of the nation's foremost civil rights champions, Dunjee used his newspaper, the courts, the Oklahoma Legislature and the federal government to win justice for African Americans in the state, as well as nationally."

Black businesses grew, and with growth came opportunity.

Percy and Hattie James started bottling and distributing soft drinks sometime around 1920.

"The Jay-Kola soda company was on 10th Street," said their granddaughter, Jewel Jones, of Alaska. "It was really a garage in the back of their house. They had some of the most unique flavors. They had formulas for peach and strawberry and root beer. The cream soda, I think, was the favorite."

The James family opened the Jewel Theater, which still stands near NE 4 and Laird, giving blacks access to movies. Percy James bought buildings in Deep Deuce, and after he and his wife divorced, she remarried Earl Miller. Together, they owned a clothing store, a cafe and a hotel.

"They were real entrepreneurs," Jones said, "and they didn't need much education. Everybody helped everybody. ... It wasn't about how smart you were or how many degrees you had."

That's the irony of segregation: By forcing blacks into racial isolation, the enemies of equality helped create the very thing they feared — strong black communities with independence and economic power.

By the late 1950s, blacks had wielded that power so effectively that they didn't need Deep Deuce anymore. By then, so many blows had been struck for equality that opportunities were opening up all over town. Prejudice didn't collapse all in one stroke, but the barriers to freedom crumbled little by little, allowing black families to move to neighborhoods previously denied them and get jobs that had been out of reach.

Fisher remembers when his family moved in 1962 from a black neighborhood to the white area of Springlake Drive. An amusement park was right there, so close, but he wasn't allowed to enjoy it until 1964, when the federal Civil Rights Act spelled the official end to segregation.

"Now we could go anywhere," Fisher said. "We could stay at any hotel, eat at any restaurant, shop at any store, bank at any bank. That opened up the whole world."

Through the latter decades of the 20th century, Deep Deuce — once so vibrant and colorful — fell deeper and deeper into decline. Businesses closed. Buildings emptied. Homes were left to rot.

In the 1970s and '80s, a suspected serial killer roamed the area, killing at least three prostitutes and depositing their body parts in empty alleys and vacant homes. He never was captured.

Eventually most of the buildings were razed. A few still stand, including the Little Page Hotel and what used to be known as Calvary Baptist Church. The rest were bulldozed to make Deep Deuce what it is today: an affluent neighborhood of apartments and high-end condominiums, complete with specialty bars and restaurants. It's a gorgeous, if sparkling new, rebuild that has created safe and trendy housing near Bricktown.

Not everything from Deep Deuce's early days is gone. The Oklahoma History Center claimed what it could, and its black history exhibit includes immersive displays on jazz and blues. The movie projector from the Jewel Theater sits cattycorner from the Katz Drug Store lunch counter display and water fountains marked "white" and "colored."

Some time ago, Fisher noticed two boys making their way through the exhibit. They scrutinized the non-working fountains closely. Then one turned to the other: "I wonder what color the water's supposed to be," he said.

That's how far we've come.

WHAT TO SEE

Oklahoma City is so large it's impossible to touch on all the sites relevant to black history. We've chosen a few of particular interest.

Oklahoma History Center

A 1930s movie projector from the Jewel Theater is on display at the Oklahoma History Center.
A 1930s movie projector from the Jewel Theater is on display at the Oklahoma History Center.

Paul B. Southerland, The Oklahoman

Bruce Fisher, administrative programs officer at the Oklahoma History Center, in the Deep Deuce and jazz and blues music exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center in January.
Bruce Fisher, administrative programs officer at the Oklahoma History Center, in the Deep Deuce and jazz and blues music exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center in January.

Paul B. Southerland, The Oklahoman

A photo archivist holds a tinted photograph on a table in the photo archive room at the Oklahoma History Center in January. The Center has hundreds of thousands of photographs and documents related to black history.
A photo archivist holds a tinted photograph on a table in the photo archive room at the Oklahoma History Center in January. The Center has hundreds of thousands of photographs and documents related to black history.

Paul B. Southerland, The Oklahoman

Oklahoma has no better custodians of the past than the professionals at the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Even so, it's no secret that for most of the 20th century, black contributions to the state went "totally ignored," said Bill Welge, director of the Society's research division.

"It's been only in the past 20 or 25 years that the ... Society has seen the error of its ways and made a concerted effort to go out into the African-American community in the state to collect and preserve and try to overcome the negative perceptions that we created," Welge said.

They've done an amazing job of playing catch-up. Significant items in the black history collection include the early-day photographs of William Prentiss Greene, motion picture footage from the 1920s, slavery bills of sale dating as far back as 1828, the narratives of former slaves and hundreds of thousands of documents and photographs.

"Many of the photographs lack any sort of contextual information," said Rachel Mosman, photo archivist at the Oklahoma History Center. "There's nothing that identifies who is in the photos or when and where precisely they were taken."

Donated documents, such as journals, letters and scrapbooks, are freeze-dried to kill any bug infestations, Welge said.

"Most cases when we get collections, they're not in the most ideal locations," he said. "They can be found in garages or basements or attics or storage facilities, things like that."

After freezing, the documents are transferred to the appropriate departments for processing and archiving. Each item goes into an acid-free environment, and efforts are under way to store all nitrate based film, which is combustible, in freezers.

Only a small percentage of the Center's holdings are on display. Within the next year, Fisher said, the black history exhibit will be redone; items previously unseen by the public will rotate into the exhibit.

Calvary Baptist Church

The Calvary Baptist Church building in Deep Deuce at NE 2 and Walnut  Avenue in January. The church is now known as the Covenant Life Family Worship Center.
The Calvary Baptist Church building in Deep Deuce at NE 2 and Walnut Avenue in January. The church is now known as the Covenant Life Family Worship Center.

Paul B. Southerland, The Oklahoman

Calvary Baptist was founded in 1890, long before statehood, and moved to its current location at 300 N Walnut Ave. in 1921. Its distinctive architecture — three stories tall, brick and capped by twin parapets — was the handiwork of Russell Benton Bingham, a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and a member of the church.

"It was the first building I ever saw," said black historian Currie Ballard, "that immortalized a black face in stained glass. ... Being the hub of the black community, the church always went beyond Sunday morning worship for black folk. It's always been a beacon of social justice."

In 1953, when he was fresh out of Crozier Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Calvary Baptist looking for a job. He preached at the church, but apparently didn't make a good enough impression: He was turned away.

"I interviewed one of the senior deacons," Ballard recalled, "and he said, 'Well, Ballard, the reason we didn't hire Dr. King is he didn't have enough gravy.' I asked what he meant. He said, 'He just wasn't old enough.'"

Martin Luther King Jr. is seen here in a photo from his July 29, 1960, visit to Oklahoma City. He was the keynote speaker at a rally at Calvary Baptist Church.
Martin Luther King Jr. is seen here in a photo from his July 29, 1960, visit to Oklahoma City. He was the keynote speaker at a rally at Calvary Baptist Church.

Dawes Fisher, The Oklahoman Archives

Five years later, Calvary Baptist served as the planning and staging area for sit-ins at Oklahoma City lunch counters. Led by Clara Luper, determined youth peacefully occupied restaurants until they were served. Seems like a simple thing, but it made a big difference.

King returned to Calvary Baptist in 1960, this time as the leading light of the civil rights movement. He was the keynote speaker at a "freedom rally" that drew a crowd of about 1,500.

But time has not been kind to the church, which was badly damaged in the Oklahoma City bombing. Willa Johnson, then the city's Ward 7 councilwoman, led a successful campaign to get money for repairs, and by 1997, the city had allotted more than $1.4 million to the project.

It wasn't enough. The roof, which was supposed to last 30 years, began failing in 2005, causing water damage. The Oklahoma Supreme Court denied the church's lawsuit against the contractor, saying it had not been filed in a timely manner.

In 2009, the building went up for sale. The asking price was $1.2 million. It did not sell.

Now known as the Covenant Life Family Worship Center, the church clearly has seen better days. Reached by phone, Shirley Davis, the women's ministry pastor, said: "There's a lot of fixing that needs to be done, particularly upstairs. But we have services there every Sunday."

Johnson, now an Oklahoma County commissioner, said the name change and the damage to the building break her heart.

"That is the site of our civil rights movement," she said. "It's a beautiful old church. It's uniquely built. ... I finally got over the emotions about it, (and) that includes the crying and the anger. I let it go and put it in the hands of the Lord."

Douglass High School — Page-Woodson

Former Douglass High School, last used as Page-Woodson school, at NE 6 and High Avenue in Oklahoma City, as seen in 2010.
Former Douglass High School, last used as Page-Woodson school, at NE 6 and High Avenue in Oklahoma City, as seen in 2010.

Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman

Named after Frederick Douglass — an escaped slave, author and abolitionist who was one of the great orators of his day — the school began life in the 1890s near the present-day site of the Myriad Botanical Gardens.

Over the years, the city's first all-black high school has moved repeatedly. Old maps that predate statehood show it occupying structures near the current sites of the Coca-Cola Events Center and the Bricktown Ballpark. The school burned in 1903.

"In the 1920s, Douglass ... moved into the Lowell School, a formerly all-white educational institution built in 1910," according to a document from Preservation Oklahoma Inc. "The school boasted a renowned staff and alumni, including well-known author J.H. Brazelton, who served as instructor and principal, and noted Oklahoma City musician Zelia Breaux, who ... later became the first female president of the Oklahoma Association of Negro Teachers."

Breaux's father was Inman Page, the first president of what would become Langston University. In his later years, Page accepted a position as principal at Douglass.

Douglass High School demonstrators march across Hudson in this undated photo from the 1960s. The protestors were heading west on Park Avenue to City Hall to show support for a city sanitation workers' strike.
Douglass High School demonstrators march across Hudson in this undated photo from the 1960s. The protestors were heading west on Park Avenue to City Hall to show support for a city sanitation workers' strike.

George Tapscott, The Oklahoma City Times

The Lowell School was located at 600 N High Ave. Douglass remained there until 1954, when it moved due to overcrowding into its current location at 900 N Martin Luther King Ave. The school on High Avenue was designated as the F.D. Moon Middle School and, later, as Page-Woodson Fifth-Year Center.

Page-Woodson closed in the mid-1990s. The building sits alone atop a hill, falling further into decrepitude with each passing year. The doors and windows are boarded up. Internet sites spread rumors that it is haunted. In 2006, a nonprofit community development organization estimated that it'd cost $30 million to restore it.

Johnson, the county commissioner, attended classes there when it was still Douglass High School.

"Douglass was the place where you wanted to be successful," she said. "We had very little problems at the school. You're always going to have some kids who are going to be kids, but the vast majority were success oriented. We had the underpinning of those great teachers and administration. They ruled with an iron fist, but that's how they kept us focused on success."

Despite her fond memories, Johnson does not think the building can be saved.

"I don't see anything happening to it now but demolition," she said. "That's going to make a lot of people mad, because they want to hold onto it, but that's about all you can do now. ... It is too big and has been allowed to decay for too long. Even though I love the school, I would really hate for the taxpayers to pick up the tab to rehabilitate that place."

CONTRIBUTING: Staff photographer Paul B. Southerland

Endangered Black History - Oklahoma City Gallery

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.