Opinion

Clara Luper, the Mother of Oklahoma’s Civil Rights Struggle

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OPINION | By Nehemiah D. Frank 

Background

The Tulsa Public Schools’ Board of Education assembled an ad hoc committee. The committee’s task is the renaming of a Tulsa Public School that currently honors Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Since their initial meeting, the committee narrowed potential school names to five: Abraham Lincoln, Maple Ridge, Council Oaks, Woody Guthrie, and Clara Luper

Why the mother of Oklahoma’s Civil Rights Struggle, Clara Luper, deserves a school named after her: 

Many would argue that all of the names are excellent choices, and I couldn’t agree more with  all of the possible names the ad hoc committee have selected; however, naming the school after Clara Luper — an iconic Oklahoman and an African-American woman — would be a win for the city, the state and nation. America would turn its eyes towards Tulsa and say: Here is a city that has faced its past head on and with courage. Now, look at the steps they are taking to bridge the color divide in their beloved Tulsa. Look at how they are making strides to become one-Tulsa. They renamed Robert E. Lee, a once segregated school, after the “mother” of their state’s Civil Rights struggle

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Photo courtesy of The Woody Guthrie Center

It is no secret that Oklahoma has iconic figures such as Woody Guthrie. Tulsans honored Mr. Guthrie by creating the Woody Guthrie Center to applaud his legacy. However, it is the iconic, darker colored Oklahomans from history who often go unrecognized. Let’s take this opportunity in the renaming of Lee School and turn it into a chance for the world to learn about Clara’s great work.

And consider this if Guthrie lived in Tulsa during the opening of Robert E. Lee Elementary school, the color of his skin would have allowed him the privilege of attending the midtown school. In addition, his family’s skin complexion would have allowed for them to reside in the Maple Ridge neighborhood. Before desegregation policies passed at the federal level, Maple Ridge was a legally segregated neighborhood — whites only. Moreover, even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, redlining prevented African-American families from buying property in Maple Ridge. Hence, naming the school after Woody Guthrie or after Maple Ridge isn’t inclusive enough, considering many Maple Ridge residents and TPS’ school district were against racial integration after the Jim Crow era ended. It took government intervention to integrate TPS — much like it’s taking TPS’ Broad of Education today to ensure equity in the renaming process is present. 

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African Americans are thankful for emancipation due to President Abraham Lincoln’s willingness to challenge the Confederacy. However, Lincoln only liberated the enslaved people to save the Union; “President Abraham Lincoln carefully framed the conflict as concerning the preservation of the Union rather than the abolition of slavery.” Further, Lincoln has thousands of schools across the nation, honoring his legacy, including a monumental memorial that most students can probably draw from memory. In fact Lincoln’s face literally proliferates American homes, wallets, pocketbooks, wishingwells, carseats, and etc. because the memorial and his portrait are on every penny. Lastly, Abraham Lincoln is one of the first learning tools American children use when learning how to count.  

There is a Council Oak Park that is dedicated to the Creek Nation in the city of Tulsa. “This will always be a special place for all of us to gather and remember this day,” said Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief George Tiger. “We have other events throughout the year that have special meaning to us like the Creek Nation Festival but this is a time when members of the ceremonial ground, community leaders and others from the tribe just come together to remember our history, our survival, in such a special place.” MCN Second Chief Roger Barnett announced Oct. 20 as ‘Council Oak Day’ per a proclamation from city of Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett.” 

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The Creek Council Tree, a mature burr oak, marks the traditional “busk ground” chosen in 1836 by the Lochapoka clan of Creek Indians.

Here’s a tough pill for many who are considering Council Oak to swallow. The Five Civilized Tribes allied with the Confederacy against Lincoln’s Union army. Furthermore, although the indigenous people to this land were persecuted at the hands of Eurocentric ideologies, indigenous Americans belonging to the Five Civilized Tribes played an equal role in the human trafficking and enslavement of people who looked like Clara Luper. It is a story that is often untold and left out of the classroom history books. After the Civil War had ended, they resented the federal government and refused to recognize the African Freedmen.

A HISTORY OF BLACK PUBLIC EDUCATION IN OKLAHOMA

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Furthermore, indigenous children who were not of Freedman origin were considered white at statehood in Oklahoma and therefore allowed to attend schools like Robert E. Lee Elementary school. (see History of Black Public Education in Oklahoma) — all the more reason to make a case for a Clara Luper elementary school, an Oklahoma woman who put her life on the line for Oklahoma’s African-American students to have the chance at an equal life-chance and an equitable education.

Accountability, Reconciliation, & Justice  

Naming a school that currently honors Robert E. Lee after a descendant of enslaved people would be the greatest dream for those who experienced enslavement under Lee’s heel. It would be the only possible apology, reimbursement, reparation, and justice that any American person regardless of skin color living today could provide to those who felt the lash of Lee’s whip and evil force. And for the black women, who witnessed their children being torn from their arms and sold to planters far and away and who unwittingly had to possibly experience Lee’s body forcibly pressed against theirs, for his wicked, immoral pleasure, it would be the only sense of justice the ad hoc committee could pay tribute to them as they now exist in death.

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German Coast Plantation House Courtesy of the Black Wall Street Times 

One could only imagine the General’s face if his school were to be named after a woman, since women didn’t have the right to own property, not even humans as property.

Listing on a Slave Auction Billboard: New Orleans, May 13, 1835

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One could only imagine his expression if the ad hoc committee and TPS’ Board of Education braved the courage and named Lee’s school after a person he could have very well purchased. And I am of the opinion that Ms. Luper’s purchase price would have been of high value, considering her high intellect. 

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Justice would roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would smile from heaven and declare that justice prevailed in Tulsa, Oklahoma if the committee named a school after Clara Luper.

Think about it, 50 years ago Clara Luper’s students would not be sitting at Robert E. Lee Elementary School. Moreover, it was illegal for an African-American teacher to teach white children in the state of Oklahoma. As a consequence, white children never encountered the profound brilliance of one of America’s most excellent teachers – Clara Luper. 

 

A HISTORY OF BLACK PUBLIC EDUCATION IN OKLAHOMA

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African-American students were not permitted to sit in classrooms or be educated by white teachers at Robert E. Lee elementary school during Jim Crow, but fortunately today, the hard work in advocacy, with much respect paid to Clara Luper and her  brigade of brave students, African-American children are now afforded the privilege to learn at Robert E. Lee Elementary School regardless of their teachers’ skin color. 

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A photograph of a student sit-in in Oklahoma City, OK 

Clara and her followers, mostly teenagers, were the first set of organized and peaceful protesters in America, practicing sit-ins in Oklahoma for the purpose to integrate the  state. Their actions, as nonviolent activist, were the catalyst for the sit-ins throughout the American south that ushered in the greatest era of inclusivity in America,  which was integration. Clara Luper’s name in and of itself is now a symbol of American excellence and represents America’s desire for equality.

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As painful as the renaming process may feel to those who have the privilege of sitting on the ad hoc committee, they should note that Clara Luper was arrested 26 times for trying to integrate Oklahoma, and integration at Robert E. Lee elementary school, today, is a by product of her courageous actions. Moreover, it took Clara and her students six years of protesting for Oklahoma to ban racial segregation.

In closing, today’s complaints from any American will never surmount to the hell that Clara’s ancestors endured while in the fields during the Confederates’ reign of terror and during the American slavery era. Her efforts and willingness to push towards a more inclusive Oklahoma and American society should be honored not only in the renaming of Robert E. Lee elementary school, but schools should revere her as being one of our nation’s most significant educators and greatest American heroes. She is the dream of the 500,000 enslaved people, brought to this American empire, who would have never imagined that a flicker of justice is, being, considered in the renaming of Robert E. Lee elementary school in a place called Tulsa, Oklahoma. Therefore, a school for a school teacher that taught and fought for equal rights for all American students deserves a school that’s dedicated to her. 

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This very sugar cane field was cleared and harvested — when the cane reached 8 to 12 feet in height — by the ancestors of the Founder & Executive Editor of the Black Wall Street Times, durning America’s slavery era. The German Coast hugs the Mississippi River in St Jean the Baptist Parish and St Charles Parishes in southern Louisiana.   

lip_9760Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder and executive editor of The Black Wall Street Times. He graduated from Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL, and earned a political science degree from Oklahoma State University. A rising voice in America and an emerging leader in the education reform movement, Nehemiah frequently travels for speaking engagements around the country, is a blogger for Education Post, and has been featured on NBC as well as in Blavity and Tulsa People. Nehemiah is also a teacher at Sankofa School of the Performing Arts in Tulsa, OK, a 2017 Terence Crutcher Foundation honoree, a recipient of the 2017 METCares Foundation Community Impact Award, and a 2018 Oluko Fellow. He gave a TED Talk at The University of Tulsa in the spring of 2018. 

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