OU names African American studies department in Clara Luper's honor

In this Nov. 16, 1971 photo, longtime Oklahoma civil rights leader, Clara Luper announces her candidacy for the U.S. Senate at a rally on Oklahoma City's east side. The OU Department of African American studies has now been named in her honor.

NORMAN — The University of Oklahoma's Department of African American Studies now honors one of Oklahoma's most recognized civil rights leaders.

Clara Luper will have her name forever attached to one of the university's newest academic departments. The OU Board of Regents approved the measure in its regular meeting last week.

"We honor Clara Luper as a trailblazer for human rights and as a symbol of the university’s commitment to equal opportunity for all people," OU President David Boren said.

Luper taught history and public relations classes at Oklahoma City-area high schools for more than 40 years. During that time, she also led the first sit-ins in the nation, paving a path for black Americans to protest their treatment and status in society in the late 1950s.

"She felt like the person that we ought to name our department after, because of her vast contributions," said Karlos Hill, interim director of the Department of African American Studies.

One of the university's first black graduates, Luper obtained her master's degree from the OU College of Education in 1951. From there, she went on to fight for integration at restaurants, hotels, theaters and even churches in Oklahoma.

On Aug. 19, 1958, Luper, then the leader of the NAACP Youth Council's Oklahoma City chapter, led members as they walked into Katz Drug Store, ordered soft drinks and staged a sit-in. It launched a movement that spanned the country and helped bring an end to segregation practices.

Hill said he, Dr. George Henderson and David Wrobel, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, in which African American studies resides, went to Boren about the name recognition. Hill said Boren loved the idea and took it to the Board of Regents for approval.

Naming the department after Luper matches up with its mission, Hill said. Those majoring in African American studies are encouraged to engage with their community in a manner similar to what she did.

"We aim to be a community-engaged department," Hill said. "By that, I mean we want our students to do community-engaged service projects and volunteer. She is someone who embodies social justice, service to man, giving back, community uplift. We wanted to align our aspirations with someone who has a legacy of being community engaged and service to others."

It also gives students a stronger connection to the civil rights effort, Hill said. Luper was born and raised in Oklahoma, and she received her education from OU. In terms of civil rights leaders, she is the most accessible to OU students.

"Students tend to think about Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. as examples, but ones they can’t follow," Hill said. "Their legacy is so big, they seem extraordinary. Clara Luper, who grew up in Oklahoma, who went to OU, she might seem more approachable. She may seem more real, an example that they think they can actually follow."

One of the most important things students can learn from Luper's story, Hill said, is how she became such a prominent figure. Though she proved to be a fearless leader, it was her decision to take up that struggle that Hill said resonates the most with young, future leaders.

"What I tell students is people like Clara Luper, Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, they would tell you they weren’t special individuals," Hill said. "But they made a decision to fight for certain things, speak about certain things. And in making that decision, it allowed them to be considered great. They made that foundational decision. Anybody can do that; it’s just to make a decision.

"And students can make that decision."