Living memories of segregation

This is the first installment of an ongoing series about school segregation and integration in Oklahoma 60 years after the Little Rock Nine. Interviews for this week’s articles began on Aug. 11, one day before the Aug. 12 white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Va.

ENID, Okla. — At the corner of South Fifth and East York, in the heart of Enid’s Southern Heights neighborhood, sits Carver Early Childhood Center. Immediately to the north is the older Booker T. Washington Community Center.

Today these buildings serve, res­pectively, as a pre-kindergarten learning center for children of every race and background, and a community center that offers area children after-school activities, mentorship programs and nutritional resources.

But, to many who live or lived in Southern Heights, these buildings still bear personal memories of a time, as late as four decades ago, when school children in Enid were segregated based on the color of their skin.

“It was just an all-black school, and you never bothered to go over there (to the white schools),” said Johnnie Bryant, remembering her time at Booker T. Washington School.

Bryant moved with her family from Kingfisher to Enid in 1942, at the age of 12. At that time, she said, she and most children accepted segregation as a way of life.

“It was accepted,” she said. “It was just the way things were.”

Enid Public Schools, like most school districts in Oklahoma and 16 other states with mandated segregation — and many other states and districts with de facto segregation — did not begin integrating schools until after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.

Bryant left Book­er T. Washington in 1950, four years before Brown v. Board of Education, and nine years before the school was closed to integrate Enid High School.

At the time, in 1950, Bryant said the idea of desegregation still was far off, and when the Brown decision came down it was hard to envision how it would be implemented in Enid.

“I didn’t have any idea how it would go,” Bryant said.

‘We needed to be equal’

Barbara Finley, executive director of the Leona Mitchell Southern Heights Heritage Center and Mu­­seum, said it was hard for most African-American students to envision integration, because they’d lived in segregation since birth.

Finley was born in Enid in 1942, at what was then called St. Mary’s Springs Hospital — in the basement.

“At that time the blacks were segregated to the basement,” Finley said.

As soon as she was old enough to comprehend, Finley said her family and community in Southern Heights began preparing her for life in segregated society.

“Our people didn’t hide things from us,” she said. “We were taught survival.”

She said the effects of segregation extended even to African-American-owned businesses.

“We knew even in our own businesses, if they catered to whites we knew to go to the back door, even in a black business,” Finley said. “So, we all had a sense of it.

“We felt it socially,” she said. “When we wanted to go to the movies, we knew according to which theater we went to whether we should go upstairs or downstairs. We had our area, and we knew it.

She said feelings among the black community in Southern Heights were mixed about integration. Some desired better access to resources, but to keep their own schools and teachers.

“Some, particularly among our elders, wanted us to have equal opportunity, more so than integration,” Finley said. “We needed to be equal. If you do your work, you should be rewarded just like anyone else.”

Others were more eager for an end to racial segregation.

“We had students who were very in-tune with it,” Finley said. “Some students had parents who were well aware of what was going on, and were vocal about what was happening in the world.”

Finley left Booker T. Washington School in 1958, one year before it was closed.

When Washington was shuttered, and children who would have gone there were sent instead to Emerson or Longfellow junior highs, Bryant experienced desegregation from the perspective of a parent.

She watched her four children change schools and enter previously forbidden environments, as the school district slowly dismantled segregation.

Bryant’s oldest son, Cecil, was part of the integration plan in 1958, when he was in the sixth grade.

“I was kind of nervous about it,” Bryant said, looking back on the day she first sent her son to a previously all-white school. “I didn’t know how he would be accepted, with the children or the teachers.”

“He seemed like he adjusted to it,” she said, adding it was “a big adjustment.”

‘You became the minority’

Clayton Nolen, a 44-year veteran educator and administrator with EPS and former city commissioner, went through that same adjustment when he went from Carver to a predominantly white class at Longfellow.

“It (segregation) was just our world, until the seventh grade, when I was 13, and all the sudden my world changed,” Nolen said. “Being a young kid at that age, I thought about it, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it.”

He said life in Southern Heights kept African-American children somewhat insulated from the racism and Jim Crow segregation laws of life in white society.

“We were in our own world, because we had our community school, we had our own stores around us, and our own churches,” Nolen said. “There was no major hint about being integrated. That was just our life. It was just the way it was.”

When children were integrated, Nolen said, they found themselves with little preparation for life in which they suddenly were a very noticeable minority.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Nolen said. “I was sitting in a classroom where there were two or three of us at the most, and I didn’t know what the reaction would be.

“You were the majority in your old school, but all the sudden they integrated you, and you became the minority,” Nolen said. “You learned to deal with it, but that was a big change.”

A large part of that change was the loss of African-American teachers with whom the students had grown up, and who could identify with the students, Nolen said.

“I knew each one of my teachers (at Carver), and those teachers — you could tell how they felt about us,” he said. “They were stern and strict, but they were very caring, and they would tell us, ‘We want you to be the very best.’ And that went all the way through school.”

Overcoming with education

When he showed up at Longfellow, Nolen said he and his African-American classmates weren’t ostracized by the teachers, but they didn’t have nearly as close a relationship with their new teachers as they had in their previous classes.

As for those beloved teachers they left behind when the schools were integrated and Booker T. Washington closed: “Many of them did not have a job,” Nolen said.

A copy of the EPS Board of Education meeting minutes for March 7, 1960, included an approval item that read simply, “Booker T. Washington School staff be released as of the end of this school term.”

In a 1964 article in “The Historian,” University of South Dakota professor Monroe Billington wrote “… a bare minimum of Negro teachers were employed in biracial schools, creating a serious economic problem for an important professional group in Oklahoma.”

“A couple of them were able to get a job back at Carver or the other elementary schools,” Nolen said of his former teachers, “but many of them were just given notice.”

He said he was motivated, well into adult life, by the words of his teachers when he left Carver: “‘Don’t you go to that school and embarrass us.’”

“I was always thinking about what those teachers were telling me,” he said, “which was, ‘I want you to always be the very best in every attempt.’”

Nolen retired from his career with EPS in 2014. He still is engaged in local schools through a mentoring program for African-American boys and teens.

The mentorship program, in part, exists to help boys today overcome perceptions and lasting impacts that have held over from the days of segregation.

Nolen said the path forward for students today, who live only a generation separated from segregation, is the same as in 1954: to embrace education.

“We have made a lot of effort to tell them how they can work to overcome that,” Nolen said. “They overcome it with education.”

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