60 years after Little Rock

I recently published the article, below, about the history of segregation and desegregation in Enid, Oklahoma. Enid is an interesting case, in that it incorporates the development of segregation in Oklahoma Territory, before statehood. It was particularly interesting that segregation was not uniformly applied prior to statehood, and the implementation of laws that forced school districts to adopt the practice.

A companion article with personal reflections on segregation falls immediately before this post on the blog, and at least one more article in the series will follow – that one looking at the lingering effects of segregation in a previous Jim Crow community.

Barbara Finley talks about newspaper articles about Booker T Washington High School on display in the Leona Mitchell Museum August 11, 2017. (Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle)

 

ENID, Okla. — The start of this school year marks the 60th anniversary of federal troops being called into Little Rock, Ark., to protect nine black students who were chosen to integrate the previously all-white Central High School — a group known to history as the Little Rock Nine.

As that anniversary — Sept. 25 — approaches, the News & Eagle is looking back at the history of segregation in Enid, before and after the Little Rock Nine.

Segregation in Oklahoma Territory

Segregation of school children based on race was not a uniform practice among schools in the Oklahoma Territory.

In a 1961 article for “The Chronicles of Oklahoma,” Frank Balyeat, then a professor in the University of Oklahoma College of Education, wrote that prior to 1890, matters of segregation were left up to the patrons of each individual school.

Segregation first became institutionalized with the passage of The School Bill by the 1890 Territorial Legislature. That bill called for uniform policies throughout school districts, but still left it up to the voters of each county to decide every three years whether or not districts could have integrated schools, or to mandate segregation.

That option proved largely symbolic, as all counties in the territory voted in 1891 and 1894 for segregated schools.

Balyeat wrote that, despite all counties voting for segregation, some individual districts still maintained integrated schools, due to the cost of building separate schools. Other districts resolved the segregation and fiscal issues by simply denying African-American students access to school.

Segregation was made more uniform throughout the territory in 1897, when the Territorial Legislature repealed its previous school laws and made it unlawful “for any white child to attend a colored school or any colored child to attend a white school.”

While the new legislation made segregation the law, it also forbade the exclusion of black children from school, and stated each district with at least eight minority children “should” build “equal school facilities,” or else transport the minority children to an adjacent district with segregated schools, or to the territorial school at Langston.

In 1901, the segregation law was strengthened to forbid any teacher instructing pupils of the “opposite race.”

In a 1905 report, Territorial Sup­erintendent of Schools L. W. Baxter claimed that “Probably no other State or Territory has built as strong a barrier against mixed schools … .”

The 1897 and 1901 laws became the foundation of school segregation when Oklahoma attained statehood on Nov. 16, 1907, and continued to shape the “separate but equal” stance on segregation through the 1950s.

Segregation in Enid

School children in Enid were fully segregated by 1898, with the construction of the Booker T. Washington School.

The school, originally placed near Government Springs Park and the current site of the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center, served all grades of African-American students.

In 1921, the school was moved to the lot on which it still stands, at the intersection of South Fifth Street and East Wabash, in the Southern Heights neighborhood.

An article titled “Race Relations and the Color Line,” provided by the Oklahoma Historical Society, states there appeared to be an unofficial “color line” in Enid, designating Southern Heights and the East Park Addition as the area in which African-Americans would be allowed to build residences, businesses and schools.

“During this period,” the article states, “there appears to have been a concerted effort to move black institutions from their original locations within the Enid townsite to the new East Park Addition on the southeast.”

The article states “hooded Klansmen rode the streets of Enid to discourage black aspirations in the town,” and by the 1920s and through the 1960s “the additions on Enid’s southeast side became home to nearly all of Enid’s black families.”

A second school, Carver Elem­entary School, was opened south of Washington in 1949, to serve students in grades one through six. Jackson Elementary School was opened in 1936 to serve white students who lived in the Southern Heights area.

Desegregation

Enid Public Schools began the desegregation process in the wake of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which ruled segregation was unlawful.

It took three years for the Brown decision to be tested, with the forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock with nine black students — the Little Rock Nine.

Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to block the students from entering the school on Sept. 4, 1957, prompting President Dwight Eisenhower three weeks later to send troops from the 101st Airborne Division to nationalize the Arkansas National Guard troops and protect the Little Rock Nine.

The next year, in 1958, Enid Public Schools began transferring students graduating from the sixth grade at Carver to Emerson and Longfellow junior high schools, instead of sending them to Washington.

Students from Washington were integrated into Enid High School, Emerson and Longfellow in 1959, and Washington was closed and its faculty dismissed at the end of the 1959-60 school year.

Lingering segregation

While Washington was closed, and students in junior and high school grades integrated, the elementary students at Carver would remain essentially segregated for another 10 years.

Jackson and Carver split the elementary grades in 1959 for students in the Southern Heights area. But, in the wake of desegregation, white families fled the neighborhood, leaving the two schools in de facto segregation.

According to a 1968 report to the EPS Board of Education, “By the end of the 1967-68 school year, the majority of the white population had moved out of the Jackson-Carver area and it was in essence, an all- Negro school.”

This de facto segregation in Jackson and Carver ran afoul of federal court decisions that came after Brown, which made it unlawful for districts to draw or maintain school boundaries so as to establish or preserve segregated schools.

A June 11, 1968, article in the Enid Morning News noted “although there are several white students at the two schools (Carver and Jackson), there are not enough for the schools to be considered integrated.”

The EPS Board of Education drafted an integration plan in 1968 that called for closing both Jackson and Carver and moving the students to the district’s other, previously all-white elementary schools. The plan was filed with and approved by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), which was overseeing desegregation implementation.

The local chapter of the NAACP objected to the plan, suggesting instead that more white students be bused in to Jackson and Carver, noting in the June 11 article that Carver was one of the district’s newest schools.

EPS Board of Education issued a statement countering that suggestion, stating Carver and Jackson were being closed not because of racial lines, but because it was not financially feasible to extend a hot lunch program that was being implemented at the other elementary schools to Carver, Jackson and also Jefferson Elementary School.

Enid Superintendent O.T. Autry in March 1969, questioned whether the integration plan still was required after the election of Richard Nixon.

In a letter to Nixon’s newly appointed HEW secretary Robert Finch, Autry cited “considerable concern among the citizens of Enid,” stating “There are those who feel that the plan to be implemented is not necessary and that it was a plan forced on the Enid Board by HEW during the previous administration.”

Autry asked for new guidance as to whether “a school district is required to desegregate an all-black school that has been created by the fact that the neighborhood is populated only by Negroes.”

He asked further, “Is it necessary for the Enid Board of Education to proceed with our integration plan … or may we assume there will be a new interpretation of the guidelines in the immediate future?”

The HEW Office for Civil Rights responded soon after that the Enid Board of Education would be required to implement its integration plan.

Jackson and Carver subsequently were closed in 1969, effectively bringing the era of school segregation to an end in Enid, 15 years after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

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