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Segregation in Oklahoma City

Segregation in Oklahoma City

by William H. Benson

October 18, 2018

     In Sam Anderson’s recent book, Boom Town, The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, he mentions three individuals, African-Americans who grew up in OKC, when segregation was enforced: Roscoe Dunjee, Ralph Ellison, and Clara Luper.

     Roscoe Dunjee began the Black Dispatch, in 1915, on the east side of OKC, and dedicated the newspaper to African-American issues. In its pages, he insisted upon racial integration.

     Dunjee’s words stunned his readers. In an article dated September 21, 1917, that he entitled, “The Jolt and Shock We Need,” he wrote,

     “Who is doing our charity work? Nobody. A feeble effort here and a little struggle there, and the rest saddled on the ‘white folks.’ All of this is the result of our lack of a live working usable organization. What shall we do? . . . And here we, at Oklahoma City, lay sleeping, unthoughtful of the moment, unprepared for tomorrow, disorganized, confused. What shall we do, who can say?”

     What Roscoe Dunjee did was begin an OKC chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and served as the organization’s state president for 16 years.

     One of his fiercest battle was the African-American’s “simple right to take up space.” Laws prevented blacks from moving into white areas. Dunjee encouraged his black friends and colleagues to cross the border and buy a house in the white neighborhoods. Once the police arrested the defiant man, “Dunjee bailed them out and sent them back to get arrested again.” A case went to the courts.

     A federal court sided with Dunjee and the blacks’ right to purchase homes outside of the segregated district. “By the tiniest possible increment, OKC’s black world began to expand.”

     Ralph Ellison was born in 1913, and grew up on on OKC’s East First Street. In his teens, he read the Black Dispatch cover to cover. Often he visited Dunjee’s office. He loved jazz, and he loved to read.

     In 1921, Ralph’s mother moved the family out of OKC, to Gary, Indiana. She decided that there was no future in OKC. Lynchings were too common. Anderson wrote, “The place was too brutal. She could not take her boys to the zoo, or to a decent public park. There was not even a proper library for Ralph.”

     On the way north, the family stopped in Tulsa, Oklahoma to visit a cousin, who lived in Greenwood, Tulsa’s segregated community, then considered the wealthiest black community in the United States. The Ellison’s were shocked to see “solid brick homes and shops, lawyers and doctors, wealth from the city’s endless oil booms, luxurious furniture, and in the cousin’s living room a baby grand piano.”   

     The Ellison family struggled in Gary, Indiana. No jobs. No food. Hungry and desperate, Ralph’s mother decided she must return to OKC, where the family would have access to food.

     On the journey back to OKC, they stopped a second time in Tulsa to visit their cousin, and were stunned to see that “Greenwood was gone.” Thirty-five city blocks were “a smoking rubble.”

     On May 31 and June 1, 1921 a race riot had broken out. “For two days, white mobs went to war on Greenwood, burning everything that the Ellisons had admired—its churches, shops, hospitals, and houses. Machine guns mowed down those fleeing the burning buildings, and there were eyewitness reports of airplanes circling and dropping incendiary bombs onto the roofs of buildings.”

     Young Ralph, then only eight, never forgot the sight. When seventeen, he fled OKC, headed north to New York City, where he became an author, publishing Invisible Man, in 1952, a best-selling novel.

     Clara Luper taught American history at Dunjee High School. On Tuesday, August 19, 1958, she, her daughter, her son, and eleven other children, “all members of the NAACP Youth Council,” walked into the Katz Drug Store on Main Street in OKC, sat down at the lunch counter, and ordered Cokes. 

    No waitress would serve them. Clara and “the children sat and waited. This was a test, a deliberate provocation.” The police arrived. TV cameras appeared. Managers told them to leave. Hours passed. Then, they got up and left. The next day they returned and sat down, and ordered Cokes. They waited.

     On the third day, “Katz Drug Store gave in and announced that it would now serve everyone, black and white, at its lunch counters, in OKC, and in all 38 of its drug stores across four states.”

     Luper and the children did not stop with Katz. They sat down in other cafeterias and businesses up and down OKC’s Main Street, asking for service. Luper was arrested 26 times, but she fought back again and again. “Through these sit-in’s, she and the children succeeded in integrating numerous public facilities in OKC and across the state by 1964.”

     Roscoe Dunjee, Ralph Ellison, and Clara Luper. Each understood how segregation led to despair and humiliation. Whereas Ralph fled OKC for a better life elsewhere, Roscoe and Clara stayed to fight.