When George Lynn Cross arrived to teach botany at the University of Oklahoma in the summer of 1934, racial segregation was so strong in Norman that no African American dared remain within the city limits after sundown. Almost ten years later when Cross became president of the university, the full extent of Oklahoma’s segregation laws came sharply into focus.This book is President Cross’s story of the events leading to the desegregation of the University of Oklahoma in 1948, with the admission of George W. McLaurin to the Graduate School of Education. Earlier, a young black woman, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, had applied to the OU School of Law and been denied admission because of her race. With the help of attorneys from the NAACP she took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The High Court equivocated, and a “separate but equal” law school was hastily established in Oklahoma City as a branch of all-black Langston University. It was not until three years later—and then only after the intervention of President Cross, who personally overrode “the law’s delay”—that Ms. Fisher was able to study at the University of Oklahoma, from which she later graduated with honors.Cross places these momentous events in historical context. The story of desegregation at the University of Oklahoma, a landmark in the continuing struggle for racial equality in the United States, makes for an engrossing book.
About the Author
George Lynn Cross (1905–1998), a native of South Dakota, served the University of Oklahoma as Professor of Botany, Chair of the Department of Botany (1938–1942), and President from 1943 to 1968. Elected to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1951, he authored several books, including Professors, Presidents, and Politicians: Civil Rights and the University of Oklahoma, 1890–1968.
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Blacks in White Colleges
Oklahoma's Landmark Cases
By George Lynn Cross
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1975 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Decisions made during the spring and summer of 1934 caused me to become involved with the events described in the following pages. The first of these decisions came at the end of the second semester at the University of South Dakota, where I had spent four years as professor and head of the Department of Botany. During that four-year period, the middle-western states had been plagued by a prolonged drought accompanied by dust storms of a magnitude not previously experienced in the country. On many days the sky was so darkened by dust that the street lights, which could be seen only dimly at a distance of from thirty to forty feet, were kept turned on in the little city of Vermillion, where the university was situated.
The economy of South Dakota was almost entirely dependent upon agriculture. After four successive years of crop failure the state found itself with very serious financial problems. Appropriations for higher education were severely slashed. My salary had been reduced 35 per cent during my four years at the university, and the future seemed bleak. I gave a great deal of thought to the possibility of finding employment in an area with a more broadly based economy.
At the close of the school term my wife and I had approximately one hundred dollars in cash and still owed fifty dollars on a vacuum cleaner we had purchased. We discussed the possibility of a vacation trip in our automobile, which would take us out of the dust, at least for a time, and we weighed this carefully against the advisability of completing the payment for the vacuum cleaner. We decided to travel and a few days later were in the Black Hills of South Dakota, enjoying the fresh, clean air of those beautiful mountains.
After a few days of this kind of living we were reluctant to return to the dust of eastern Dakota, and we decided to push farther west for as long as our money held out. There appeared to be two interesting possibilities for additional travel: we could visit the Rocky Mountain biological station at Gothic, Colorado, or we could go to the summer camp for geology and biology maintained by the University of Wyoming, in the Snowy Range near Centennial, Wyoming. This called for a second decision—a fateful one—which we decided should be based on the flip of a coin. The coin's choice was the University of Wyoming summer camp, and we took off immediately. At the camp we met Professor Paul B. Sears, Chairman of the Department of Botany and Bacteriology at the University of Oklahoma. Professor Sears was looking for a structural botanist to succeed Professor Adriance Foster, who had left Oklahoma for a position at the University of California at Berkeley. Professor Sears offered me the position. Although the salary differential was approximately a hundred dollars and my title would be that of assistant professor, Mrs. Cross and I had little difficulty reaching a decision to accept the offer.
On the whole, the decision turned out to be a good one. During the late 1930's, Professor Sears left the University of Oklahoma to accept a position at Oberlin College, and I succeeded him as head of the Department of Botany and Microbiology. Shortly after the United States became involved in World War II, Professor Homer Dodge, Dean of the Graduate College, was called to Washington, D.C., to aid in the war effort, and I became Acting Dean of the Graduate College. When Joseph A. Brandt, President of the University, resigned in 1943 to accept the directorship of the University of Chicago Press, I was named Acting President. In 1944, I was named President, a post I held for nearly twenty-five years, during a period of many changes at the university—the most important of which certainly involved the events described in the following pages.
One summer afternoon in 1934, shortly after moving to Norman, I discussed with a local merchant several aspects of life in the community where my family and I expected to live for the next several years. During the course of our conversation the man introduced the subject of racial relations, with the comment that I would never need to worry about the "nigger problem." He made the remark with obvious pride, explaining that there were no Negroes living in Norman or even in the vicinity of Norman. There was an unwritten law, he said, that a Negro could not remain within the city limits after sundown. This restriction had been in effect since the settling of Norman during the land rush of 1889. I asked how such an unwritten "law" could be enforced, and he told me that there had never been need for enforcement. The Negroes, he said, understood the situation perfectly and knew better than to remain in the city after sundown. He then went on to explain that, while Negroes were permitted to work in the city during the day, they were never permitted to live there because their residential areas would certainly become slums that would destroy the value of adjacent property owned by whites. He described a few instances of how this had happened in other municipalities where the citizenry had lacked the foresight shown by the Normanites.
I was a little startled by what the man said, especially by his hint about what might happen to a Negro caught in Norman after sundown, but I considered his remarks of only local significance. It did not occur to me that they spotlighted attitudes that would cause almost overwhelming problems in human relations during the decades to follow. As a matter of fact, it was not until I became involved in preparing this book that I fully came to understand the extent to which citizens of Norman had gone, even in early territorial days, to convince Negroes that Norman was not for them.
Early in June, 1898, J. J. Wallace, a tinner and roofer with a store and place of business in Oklahoma City, came to Norman to perform some work in line with his trade. He brought with him as an assistant a black named George Rogan. While engaged in their work, Wallace and his assistant allegedly were attacked by a group of approximately twenty-five persons who beat Wallace about the head, eyes, and body, knocked him senseless, fractured his skull, and caused him to lose the sight of his left eye. As a result of these injuries, he alleged, it was necessary for him to be under the care of a physician and nurse for sixty days, and he had been permanently incapacitated from successfully following his trade.
Wallace subsequently filed a twenty-five-thousand-dollar suit for damages in the District Court of Cleveland County against the town of Norman. Wallace contended in the petition that the attack on him was the result of a conspiracy on the part of the citizens of Norman to prevent, by threats of physical violence, the "laboring, living or lodging within the corporate limits of the defendant town of law-abiding colored citizens of the United States." He cited incidents that had occurred during the preceding three years when black citizens of the United States—Frank Rogan, Robert Green, David Branham, Robert Ely, and others whose names were unknown to him—had been assaulted, beaten, and driven from Norman when they attempted to work there. He alleged that the "defendant town, and all of its officers and agents" had knowledge of the conspiracy to keep Negroes from living or working in the area, basing his allegation on the fact that the town marshal, J. S. Davidson, had been present and had given audible encouragement when he, Wallace, had been beaten.
In November, 1898, the town of Norman filed a demurrer to Wallace's petition on the grounds that the petition did not state a cause of action. In September of the following year the district court sustained the demurrer.
Wallace then took his case to the Supreme Court of the Territory of Oklahoma, where the case was reviewed in January, 1900. The territorial Supreme Court, in an opinion handed down by Justice J. Irwin, sustained the action of the lower court on the grounds that the petition had not shown that the town of Norman had been remiss in not passing laws against the kind of attack upon which his petition was based. The town could not be held responsible for an attack by a group of individuals unless it could be shown that the town had been negligent in not passing such laws. Apparently realizing the hopelessness of the situation, Wallace elected to drop the matter rather than take additional court action with a revised petition.
There were many undocumented rumors of Negroes having been run out of Norman during the first quarter of the twentieth century, but an authentic case, well remembered by several citizens of the community, occurred in the early 1920s, when V. V. Harris, a wealthy oilman of Oklahoma City, decided that he would like to attend the University of Oklahoma. Harris constructed a home at 518 South Lahoma and moved into it with his wife, two small children, and a Negro woman who had been a long-time member of the family. The Negro woman was housed in an apartment above the garage behind the house. Her duties were to take care of the house and look after the children; although she never left the premises, her presence there was considered objectionable by some Norman residents. The Harris home was bombarded with rocks wrapped in paper on which messages were written. The messages thrown on the front and rear porches of the house read, in effect, "Get rid of the nigger or else!"
The Harris family endured the harassment for a year or so but finally sold their home to a sorority and moved back to Oklahoma City. The sorority occupied the house for several years, during which period one of their members was Dorothy Wentz, a niece of Lew Wentz, a wealthy oilman who lived in Ponca City. Dorothy's automobile was driven by a Negro chauffeur. Possibly taking her cue from what had happened previously at the house, she kept her car and chauffeur in Oklahoma City, about twenty miles away.
William Bennett Bizzell became President of the University of Oklahoma in 1925, after serving for ten years as President of the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College. Once, during his earlier years at the university, he was visited by friends from Texas, who arrived in Norman in an automobile driven by a Negro chauffeur. Since the friends would spend the night in the guest room at the president's home on Boyd Street, President Bizzell planned to have the Negro occupy the apartment above the garage in the rear of the home. News of the plan got around Norman by the middle of the afternoon, and by late afternoon the president had received so many threatening phone calls concerning the arrangement that he sent the Negro chauffeur to Oklahoma City to be housed for the night.
There is no recorded instance of a Negro having spent the night within the city limits of Norman until the naval installations were established in the town after the beginning of World War II. The local citizens apparently realized that if they were to reap the financial benefits of the presence of the two large bases it would be necessary to accept the naval personnel regardless of race. In the beginning an effort was made to keep Negroes out of Norman housing, but this effort gradually failed as naval officers came to the community with their families and insisted on having Negro helpers on their premises.
My early incomprehension of the Oklahoma situation perhaps stemmed from the fact that I had had almost no contact with any member of the black race until I entered South Dakota State College in the fall of 1923. There I found myself a member of a football squad which included one Negro—a fine halfback named Ross Owens, whom our very aggressive coach, Jack West, had recruited from Fort Scott, Kansas. Charlie, as Ross was known by everyone on the campus, was a splendid athlete and a very intelligent young man with a fine sense of humor. I don't remember anyone ever suggesting that it was undesirable to have a Negro on the squad. Participation of Negroes in athletics was not uncommon in northern universities at that time, although they had not as yet found acceptance in professional sports. When our team traveled, Charlie always shared a room with some member of the squad, and there appeared to be little awareness that he was of different racial origin. My first experience with segregation came on an occasion when Charlie was refused a hotel room in Sioux City, Iowa. The reaction of his teammates was immediate and unanimous—they would not stay in the hotel. The coach spent an hour or so on the phone before finding accommodations for us elsewhere. This was the only problem of its kind that we encountered over a three-year period, although we read frequently of racial problems in the larger cities of the country, especially the northern cities. On the whole, from our isolated position, it appeared that such problems, while temporarily frustrating and embarrassing, would surely find ultimate solutions.
But in Oklahoma, as in other southern states, the situation was complicated by the fact that there were laws that prohibited mixing of the races. Negroes could not attend white schools at any educational level. They had their own grade schools, secondary schools, and a single, unaccredited institution of higher learning, Langston University, which had been established in 1897 as the Agricultural and Normal University for Negroes.
Of course, when one considers the historical background of Oklahoma, it is understandable—almost inevitable—that this should have been the case. With the exception of the Panhandle, Oklahoma was part of a tract of land acquired by the United States from France in 1803. Negro slavery had existed in the territory, especially in the southern portion, before its purchase by the United States. A clause in the purchase agreement, which guaranteed the protection of the liberties, property, and religion of the inhabitants, classified slaves as property and thus provided a legal basis for the continuance of slavery there after the purchase.
When Maine and Missouri were admitted to the Union through congressional enactment of the Missouri Compromise, the act provided that slavery was to be barred north of latitude 36°30' but that land south of this line should be slave territory. Slavery, therefore, received direct legal sanction in what is now Oklahoma.
In the meantime since 1817 the federal government had been developing plans for the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from their former homes in the southeastern states to the Indian Territory—ultimately to become Oklahoma. This removal was completed for the most part by 1842. The Five Civilized Tribes, following the practices of their white neighbors in the southern states, had adopted the custom of Negro slavery, and when they were removed to their new homes, they took their slaves with them. Under the terms of the various treaties incident to the acquisition of the new territory and the removal of the Indians to it, the Indians were free to manage their slaves as they saw fit until the end of the Civil War. While there was considerable variation in the degree of segregation developed by the different tribes, few if any Negroes attained the rights of citizens in the tribes; correspondingly, few if any received the right to attend the schools that were developed in the newly occupied areas.
Political philosophy, social tradition, and various economic factors tended to cause the tribes to cast their lots with the Confederacy during the Civil War. This was particularly the case with the Choctaws and Chickasaws. The Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles were somewhat divided on the issue, however, and the Cherokees and Creeks organized "governments in exile." This may have also been true of the Seminoles. John Ross, an influential member of the Cherokee tribe, tried for a time to maintain neutrality for his people, but eventually he was pressured to recognize the South. Ultimately all the tribes entered into treaties with the southern states, and they took part in the combat against the North. At the end of the war it was inevitable that they should share the consequences of defeat with their southern allies.
In 1866, almost immediately after the cessation of hostilities, the federal government took up the matter of dealing with its insubordinate subjects. It took the position that the real governments of the five tribes were those that adhered to the Confederacy and that their disloyalty provided justification for abrogating the older treaties that guaranteed certain rights to the tribes. Under the new treaties the Five Civilized Tribes were forced to return to the federal domain for what appears to have been inadequate consideration—roughly the western one-half of their territory. The land reclaimed by the federal government was used to further its policy of forcing the Plains tribes onto reservations and to achieve a concentration of other tribes already on reservations that had become something of a "nuisance" in the eyes of the white inhabitants of the older states.
Excerpted from Blacks in White Colleges by George Lynn Cross. Copyright © 1975 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
2. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher,
3. George W. McLaurin,
1. Supreme Court decision in Ada Lois Sipuel v. Board of Regents,
2. Judge Justin Hinshaw's Order in Sipuel v. Board of Regents,
3. Justice Wiley B. Rutledge's statement of dissent in Sipuel v. Board of Regents,