The Norman Transcript

February 16, 2014

Exhibit chronicles state’s civil rights struggles

By Andy Rieger
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Tucked conveniently between two historic buildings near the OU campus’ front door, a quiet monument reminds visitors of a more turbulent time in Norman. The soothing sound of the fountain is testament to calmer days, not anything like the civil rights struggle that played out a few hundred feet to the southwest in Monnet Hall.

The war to end all wars was over and America was beginning to realize its own injustices at home. On campus, a young woman from Chickasha, with a diploma from Langston University, would be selected to challenge the university’s whites-only policy in graduate schools. Her fight to enter the College of Law would eventually be decided before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, a 20-something African American, was recruited for the job. Segregation was one of the first laws the young legislature would pass after statehood in 1907. 

“My mom was asked if she would be the plaintiff — she was the guinea pig,” says Bruce Fisher, son of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher. “At that time the only place Black people could go to school was Langston and mom wanted to go to law school and Langston didn’t have a law school.”

With the counsel of famed civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall and the support of newspaperman and civil rights leader Roscoe Dunjee, Fisher was finally admitted to the OU College of Law in 1949. Her 1952 diploma, signed by OU President George Cross and law dean Maurice Merrill, are part of “Realizing the Dream,” a new exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center northeast of the Capitol in Oklahoma City. The exhibit was opened as part of Black History Month.

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“She never even took the diploma out of the canister and she never hung it on the wall,” Bruce Fisher said during a tour of the exhibit. “I never knew why. She died before I could ask her about it.”

Bruce Fisher serves as director of special projects for the Oklahoma Historical Society and was curator of the exhibit. His mother was pregnant with him during her last months in law school. He retires at months end.

Fisher’s law school classroom seat was in the back, chained off from the white students under a sign that read, “colored.” She couldn’t live in Norman or stay here after sundown.

“Dad worked at Tinker Field and he would drop her off early in the morning and pick her up at night or she would stay with friends in Oklahoma City,” Fisher said. 

Fisher said despite its unjust policies his mother loved OU. Gov. David Walters appointed her to the OU Board of Regents. 

“In our family we say she went from the colored chair to the Regents chair,” Bruce Fisher said.

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The exhibit includes historic signs and artifacts from African American barber and beauty shops in the Deep Deuce area of Oklahoma City. A projector was saved and restored from the old Jewel Theatre on NE 4th. The Walker Hardware sign from the store on NE 2nd hangs nearby. The lunch counter where students staged a sit-in in downtown Oklahoma City is recreated.

The beauty and barber shops were significant in that women wanted to imitate the European standards of beauty. It also opened new doors of employment.

“After slavery ended the only professions Black women could have were teachers or domestic workers,” Bruce Fisher said. “It gave Black women a chance to go from domestic worker to entrepreneur.”

The exhibit looks at the dozens of historically Black towns in Oklahoma. A darker side details lynchings, race riots and attempts at racial reconciliation. Fisher told the story of watching some youngsters staring at the side-by-side water fountains in the exhibit. One was marked white and the other marked colored.

“They wanted to know what color the water was supposed to be,” he said. “They just had no idea what those signs meant.”

Andy Rieger

editor@normantranscript.com

366-3543

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