Oklahoma Black History Heroes: Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher

Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher Portrait


Ada Lois Sipuel was born February 8, 1924, in Chickasha, Oklahoma. An excellent student, she graduated from Lincoln High School in 1941 as valedictorian. Initially, she enrolled in Arkansas A&M College at Pine Bluff. After one year she transferred to Langston University in September 1942, where she majored in English and dreamed of being a lawyer. On March 3, 1944, she married Warren Fisher. On May 21, 1945, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher graduated from Langston University with honors. Her brother planned to challenge segregationist policies of the University of Oklahoma, but went to Howard University Law School to not delay his career further by protracted litigation. Sipuel was willing to delay her legal career in order to challenge segregation.

At the urging of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), twenty-one-year-old Fisher agreed to seek admission to the University of Oklahoma’s law school in order to challenge Oklahoma’s segregation laws and achieve her lifelong ambition of becoming a lawyer. On January 14, 1946, she applied for admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

After reviewing Fisher’s credentials, the university’s president, Dr. George Lynn Cross, advised her that there was no academic reason to reject her application for admission, but that Oklahoma statutes prohibited whites and blacks from attending classes together. The laws also made it a misdemeanor to instruct or attend classes comprised of mixed races. Dr. Cross would have been fined up to fifty dollars a day, and the white students who attended class with her would have been fined up to twenty dollars a day.

On April 6, 1946, with the support of civic leaders from across the state, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher filed a lawsuit in the Cleveland County District Court, prompting a three-year legal battle. A young attorney, Thurgood Marshall, later a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, represented Fisher. She lost her case in the county district court and appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which sustained the ruling of the lower court, finding that the state’s policy of segregating whites and blacks in education did not violate the federal constitution.

After an unfavorable ruling from the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Fisher filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. On January 12, 1948, the nation’s highest tribunal ruled in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma that Oklahoma must provide Fisher with the same opportunities for securing a legal education as it provided to other citizens of Oklahoma. The case was remanded to the Cleveland County District Court, to carry out the ruling.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her favor, the Oklahoma Legislature, rather than admit Fisher to the Oklahoma University law school or close the law school to students both black and white, decided to create a separate law school exclusively for her to attend. The new school, named Langston University School of Law, was thrown together in five days and was set up in the State Capitol’s Senate rooms.

Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher refused to attend Langston University School of Law, and on March 15, 1948, her lawyers filed a motion in the Cleveland County District Court contending that Langston’s law school did not afford the advantages of a legal education to blacks substantially equal to the education whites received at OU’s law school. This inequality, they argued, entitled Fisher to be admitted to the University of Oklahoma College of Law. However, the Cleveland court ruled against her, finding that the two state law schools were “equal.” The Oklahoma Supreme Court, predictably, upheld the finding.

After this second adverse ruling, Fisher’s lawyers announced their intention to again appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, Oklahoma Attorney General Mac Q. Williamson declined to return to Washington, D.C., and face the same nine Supreme Court justices in order to argue that Langston’s law school was equal to OU’s law school. As a result of this concession, on June 18, 1949, more than three years after Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher first applied for admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law, she was admitted. Langston University’s law school closed twelve days later.

Although Fisher was generally welcomed by her white classmates, she was forced to sit in the back of the room behind a row of empty seats and a wooden railing with a sign designated “colored.” All black students enrolled at the University of Oklahoma were provided separate eating facilities and restrooms, separate reading sections in the library, and roped-off stadium seats at the football games. These conditions persisted through 1950.

However, the end of segregation in higher education had already begun. In 1948 a group of six black Oklahomans applied to University of Oklahoma’s graduate schools in disciplines ranging from zoology to social work. All were denied admission under the same statute that denied admission to Fisher. Thurgood Marshall selected one of the six students, George W. McLaurin, to present yet another challenge to segregation in higher education. In a June 5, 1950, U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, the Court ruled that the restrictions of segregation imposed on McLaurin at OU impaired and inhibited his ability to study. The decision meant that blacks could no longer be segregated at OU and could now be admitted to graduate schools at all state-supported colleges and universities in the nation. The state soon realized that it could not create separate graduate programs for blacks similar to the sham law school it had quickly invented for Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher.

In August 1952 Fisher graduated from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. She earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Oklahoma in 1968. After briefly practicing law in Chickasha, Fisher joined the faculty of Langston University in 1957 where she served as chair of the Department of Social Sciences. She retired in December 1987 as assistant vice president for academic affairs. In 1991 the University of Oklahoma awarded Fisher an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

On April 22, 1992, Gov. David Walters symbolically righted the wrongs of the past by appointing Dr. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, the same school that had once refused to admit her to its College of Law. As the governor said during the ceremony, it was a “completed cycle.” The lady who was once rejected by the university was now a member of its governing board.

On October 18, 1995, Dr. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher died. In her honor the University of Oklahoma subsequently dedicated the Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher Garden on the Norman campus. At the bottom of a bronze plaque commemorating Fisher’s contribution to the state of Oklahoma, an inscription reads, “In Psalm 118, the psalmist speaks of how the stone that the builders once rejected becomes the cornerstone.”

Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher

 

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Sen. Johnson Named Chair of National Black Caucus of State Legislators’ Health Committee

Oklahoma State Senate

Communications Division

State Capitol

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73105

For Immediate Release: February 21, 2013 

Sen. Constance N. Johnson named Chair of National Black Caucus of State Legislators’ Health Committee 

OKLAHOMA CITY – Sen. Constance N. Johnson has been appointed to serve as Chair of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators’ (NBCSL) Health Committee for 2013-2014. Sen. Johnson was appointed by NBCSL President Joe Armstrong of Tennessee because of her extensive work in the area of health care at the annual conferences where she regularly introduces resolutions addressing issues important to American’s health.  Over the years, Sen. Johnson has worked with NBCSL’s Corporate Round Table members in introducing and shepherding through proposals ranging from stroke prevention to behavioral health.  The Oklahoma County democrat plans to continue her efforts in improving the country’s health care delivery systems as the health of its citizens remains a top priority at the federal as well as at the state government levels.

Sen. Johnson began her affiliation with NBCSL over 25 years ago while working as a senior legislative analyst for Health and Human Services in the Oklahoma State Senate.  She successfully established a staff section within NBCSL where she worked with the Health Committee to ensure the policies that came before the group were in the best possible form.  She has served on the NBCSL Health Committee since her election to the Senate in 2005, and worked closely with affiliated groups such as the National Medical Association

“I am pleased and honored to be selected by President Armstrong to chair a committee that is so crucial to the well-being of our constituents, especially given the President’s visionary leadership regarding improved health care access and coverage in America,” stated Johnson.  “Tremendous challenges remain in the area of health care, however, I am excited to have this opportunity to be a part of NBCSL’s program for solutions.”

Sen. Johnson will begin her term of service during the upcoming joint colloquium with the National Medical Association in March of this year.  

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Bill Protecting Children Dies in House Committee

State of Oklahoma

House of Representatives

 

February 20, 2013

For immediate release:

Rep. Chuck Hoskin

(405) 557-7319

 

Bill protecting children dies in House committee

 

OKLAHOMA CITY- House Republicans killed a bill in committee Tuesday afternoon that would prohibit adults from having sex with minors.

After a 10-6 vote on party lines, the Judiciary Committee killed HB 1306, which would prohibit those in ministerial positions, such as pastors, clergy, religious leaders, and youth ministers, from having sex with anyone at least 16 to 20 years old.

The bill was modeled after current law protecting minor children in an educational setting. It was written based on a constituent request to the bill’s author, Rep. Chuck Hoskin, D-Vinita.

“What areas are we going to protect our children, and what areas are we not?” said Hoskin. “To cast a ‘no’ vote against protecting this age of children is hard to understand.”

“I was open to tweaks or improvements,” said Hoskin. “Unfortunately, I was not afforded that opportunity. Rather than amend it, they just killed it.”

Even though HB 1306 died in the House, the Senate passed a similar bill, SB 175. Therefore, the measure will come to the House once again.

 

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Oklahoma Black History Heroes: Don R. Ross

Don Ross

Don Ross, the son of Israel Ross and Pearline Vann (Evette) Ross, was born on March 11, 1941, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After graduating from Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School in 1959, he joined the Air Force for four years. In 1963, he returned to Tulsa, where he found a job in a bakery. “I was the first black union baker in the state of Oklahoma,” Ross said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography.

Don Ross, civil rights activist and journalist, was first elected to the Oklahoma State Legislature in 1982. During his 20-year career as a legislator, Ross focused primarily on education, the arts, labor relations, economic development, and affirmative action. As a state legislator, Ross has focused primarily on education, the arts, labor relations, economic development, and affirmative action. He has also struggled to improve health services, social services, and cultural opportunities for African Americans and other minorities.

Among the laws Ross has authored were Oklahoma’s first affirmative action law–a law establishing preferences for minority vendors–and affirmative action goals for higher education. Ross helped to establish a state holiday honoring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and lobbied to have Interstate 244, which runs along the border of the Greenwood district of Tulsa, renamed for King. Ross was also the principal author of legislation updating Oklahoma’s child labor laws.

Of all his accomplishments in the legislature, Ross is proudest of the fact that he led the fight to take down the Confederate flag flying above the building. “When I was sworn in in 1984, my son Edward was with me,” Ross told CBB. “He asked why we flew that flag. I had no answer for him. I had never noticed it.” In 1989, Oklahoma became the first state in the nation to take down the Confederate flag above its governmental buildings.

During his legislative career, Ross has held several leadership positions. He has served as secretary and chairman of the House of Representatives Democratic Caucus, and vice-chairman of the Tulsa County Democratic Party. He was chairman of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus from 1982 to 1984 and again from 1986 until 1988. Ross has also served as chairman of the speaker’s committee on at-risk youth, and cochairman of Oklahoma Task Force on African-American Males.

Ross has brought more than $79 million to north Tulsa–the city’s predominantly African American area–including funding for health care, and programs for children and senior citizens. He has been named “legislator of the year” 13 times by organizations ranging from the NAACP and the Native American Chamber of Commerce to the Mental Health Association and Americans for Civil Liberties.

Outside of his home state, Ross is best known for his efforts to uncover the truth about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, thought to be one of the most violent race riots in American history. For more than fifty years, the riot was hushed up; several books on Tulsa history omitted it altogether. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ross was one of the first journalists to write about the Tulsa riot, even as both blacks and whites criticized him for opening old wounds. Later, as a state legislator, Ross drafted a bill creating the Tulsa Riot Commission, a team that would be charged with discovering what had really happened in 1921.

During the early 1960s, Ross became involved in the city’s fledgling civil rights movement. “I had activist friends who recruited me,” Ross told CBB. “We demonstrated. We picketed segregated restaurants and parks, and employers who wouldn’t hire African Americans.” Although Ross was arrested several times, he told CBB that the civil rights struggle in Tulsa was mainly nonviolent. In addition to his work in Tulsa, Ross was active in the Mississippi Freedom Movement, and attended the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Started Weekly Column

Also in 1963, Ross began to explore the possibilities of a career in journalism. “I got into it by accident,” Ross told CBB. “One of the editors of the local black paper [the Oklahoma Eagle] had a deadline, and he asked me to get the who, what, where, when, and why.”

Soon afterward, Ross was offered the chance to write a weekly column for the Eagle. “It was a column of my observations about social issues and urban issues. Sometimes it was satirical,” Ross told CBB. “I’ve written a weekly column since 1963.” Originally titled “From the Ghetto,” Ross’s column was later renamed “City Life,” and then “Urban Shades,” its current name. While the column’s name has changed, “it still has the same texture,” Ross told CBB.

In the mid-1960s, Ross enrolled at the University of Central Oklahoma (formerly Central State University), where he majored in journalism; however, he did not complete his degree until 1986. In 1989, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Central Oklahoma. He has also attended the University of Tulsa College of Law, and studied labor relations at Rutgers University and Columbia University.

In 1967, Ross became labor affairs director at the Tulsa Urban League, a position he held until 1972. Meanwhile, he continued to write for the Oklahoma Eagle. In 1968, he wrote three columns about the history of the Tulsa Race Riot. “This was the first time that the story had hit the public,” Ross told CBB.

During the early 1970s, Ross helped to establish a regional magazine called Impact. “It was modeled after Ebony magazine,” Ross told CBB. “It focused on arts, history, and culture, like Ebony.” In 1971, the fiftieth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot, Ross wrote an article about it for Impact. The reaction from readers was surprisingly hostile. Ross was quoted in a Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service story, “Both blacks and whites got on my case for causing trouble. I had violated the conspiracy of silence going on for 50 years.”

Became One of First Black Managing Editors

In 1972, Ross was offered a job as assistant managing editor at the Gary Post-Tribune in Gary, Indiana. At the time, there were very few black journalists, let alone editors; Ross was one of the first African Americans to work on the management team of a major metropolitan newspaper. “It was culture shock,” Ross told CBB. “I had never lived in a predominantly black community, with a black mayor. At the time Gary was the headquarters of the drug culture–it was a tough place.”

However, Ross credits the time he spent in Gary with inspiring him to make his own run for office. “As a journalist, I was covering that scene, watching the power work,” he told CBB. “I was able to draw my own conclusions about what should be done.”

In 1977, Ross moved back to Tulsa to take a position as vice president and general manager of the Oklahoma Eagle. After a year, he left the paper to launch his own public relations firm, Don Ross & Associates. Almost 20 years later, in 1995, Ross relaunch the company as Ebony Partners. In addition to public relations, Ebony Partners has created two photographic exhibits–one on the history of jazz in Oklahoma, and one on the Tulsa Race Riot–which have traveled internationally.

Elected to Oklahoma House of Representatives

In the early eighties, Ross decided to run for a seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Elected in the fall of 1982, he would go on to serve in the legislature for 18 years. “It was a natural evolution from the Civil Rights Movement,” Ross told CBB. “The power to make a change is in politics, not just in the streets. Many activists from that period have since become politicians.”

As a state legislator, Ross has focused primarily on education, the arts, labor relations, economic development, and affirmative action. He has also struggled to improve health services, social services, and cultural opportunities for African Americans and other minorities.

Among the laws Ross has authored were Oklahoma’s first affirmative action law–a law establishing preferences for minority vendors–and affirmative action goals for higher education. Ross helped to establish a state holiday honoring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and lobbied to have Interstate 244, which runs along the border of the Greenwood district of Tulsa, renamed for King. Ross was also the principal author of legislation updating Oklahoma’s child labor laws.

Of all his accomplishments in the legislature, Ross is proudest of the fact that he led the fight to take down the Confederate flag flying above the building. “When I was sworn in in 1984, my son Edward was with me,” Ross told CBB. “He asked why we flew that flag. I had no answer for him. I had never noticed it.” In 1989, Oklahoma became the first state in the nation to take down the Confederate flag above its governmental buildings.

During his legislative career, Ross has held several leadership positions. He has served as secretary and chairman of the House of Representatives Democratic Caucus, and vice-chairman of the Tulsa County Democratic Party. He was chairman of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus from 1982 to 1984 and again from 1986 until 1988. Ross has also served as chairman of the speaker’s committee on at-risk youth, and cochairman of Oklahoma Task Force on African-American Males.

Ross also served as  chairman of the appropriations and budget subcommittee on health and social services, with responsibility for more than $1.2 billion annually. He is also a member of the rules committee, the education committee, and the appropriations, energy, and transportation committee. In addition to his responsibilities as state legislator, Ross has served on the executive committee of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL), and as special assistant to the NBCSL president.

During his years in the legislature, Ross has brought more than $79 million in funding to north Tulsa, the city’s predominantly African American area. He has also tried to increase economic development in the area through tourism. As part of this effort, Ross has worked to develop the Greenwood Cultural Center, located in the heart of Tulsa’s African American community. The center is a multipurpose education, arts and humanities complex that promotes the history, culture and contributions of Tulsa’s black artists and scholars.

Launched Investigation into Tulsa Race Riot

Ross has also struggled to gain recognition for the Tulsa Race Riot, which had nearly wiped out the Greenwood community decades before. The riot began with a seemingly innocuous event: a young black man, Dick Rowland, boarded an elevator operated by a young white woman, Sarah Page. What exactly happened next is unclear–one historian suggests Rowland accidentally stepped on Page’s foot–but police arrested Rowland and charged him with assault. The next day, a crowd of whites and blacks gathered at the courthouse. Fighting broke out, and quickly spread to the Greenwood district. By the next day, all of Greenwood was in flames.

Ross was the principal organizer of the 75th anniversary commemorations of the 1921 riot. The ceremony included the dedication of “The Wall Street Memorial,” a ten-foot granite monument inscribed with the names of more than 200 black-owned businesses that were destroyed by the flames.

In 1997, Ross cosponsored legislation to establish the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. “Four years ago, if I had proposed a Tulsa Race Riot Commission, I would have been laughed off the House floor,” Ross commented in the newspaper Tulsa World at the time. “Even though the legislature is more conservative today, there are more people on all sides–including the governor and the mayor–who are pushing for this project and others that would benefit the citizens of north Tulsa.” The Tulsa Race Riot Commission, an eleven-member group, was charged with studying the events of the riot, and making recommendations about reparations. The commission, which has interviewed dozens of people who survived the riot, is due to deliver a report in the spring of 2000.

In November of 2000, Ross was once again elected to the Oklahoma legislature. Under the state’s term-limits law, he is eligible to serve until 2004. Ross’s future plans include writing a book about the history of African Americans in Oklahoma. “The book will begin with the African American journey on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma,” Ross told CBB. “My family roots go back to the Trail of Tears. My grandmother and grandfather survived the Tulsa Race Riot–my auntie was born the year of the riot. I want to write about how segregation molded the community, and the different laws and changes that have been made.”

Awards

Outstanding Service, National Urban League; Outstanding Staff Member, Tulsa Urban League; Distinguished Merit Citation, National Conference of Christians and Jews; Meritorious Journalism, Associated Press; named Legislator of the Year 13 times.