Tribute to some of Oklahoma’s pioneers
If you’ve been living in Oklahoma City for more than a minute, you must know the name of Clara Luper, mother of the state’s civil rights movement who in 1958, along with her young students, demanded they be served at the Downtown Katz Drug Store. She inspired a nationwide sit-in movement that desegregated food outlets across the South.
Luper was a visionary who had the audacity to dare a system to refrain from disenfranchising black people in food establishments.
See stories of Oklahoma’s pioneers
Less well known are many other African Americans, past and present, who bargained with lawmakers and other policymakers to change laws and reform systems that created a path to representation and participation for all. These men and women faced people who viewed some of them as unworthy as they defied established norms.
In this final week of Black History Month, we’ve selected a handful of Oklahoma pioneers who made history in the state. Oklahoman wants to recognize these story makers who have worked in the judicial, legislative or law enforcement fields of government. Some are long gone, unsure if better days are ahead for African Americans.
We yearn for the day when being “first” is a thing of the past, with systems and institutions that fully embrace equity and inclusion to the point where the notion of “first” becomes irrelevant. We are not there yet. Too many “firsts” are not in the distant past, so we celebrate them as groundbreaking pathfinders whose courage and selfless pursuits inspire generations.
Imagine the tenacity of Green I. Currin, a Tennessee slave who moved to Kansas after his emancipation and developed an interest in politics. The Oklahoma Land Run would bring him to the territory, and he staked a claim near Kingfisher, where he received support to secure a seat in the first territorial legislature. Currin knew it would take legislative action to secure protections for black people, so he introduced Oklahoma’s first civil rights legislation. He failed by one vote.
Currin’s political career ended in the Territorial Legislative Assembly, but in 1908, Albert Comstock Hamlin won a seat in the Oklahoma Legislature. After one term, Hamlin lost his seat as the only African American to serve in the Oklahoma Legislative Assembly when a constitutional amendment that barred most black residents from voting ended his political career. It wasn’t until E. Melvin Porter was elected to the Senate in 1964 that another African American was in the Legislative Assembly.
Amos T. Hall was one of Oklahoma’s most prominent civil rights attorneys. He worked with famed civil rights lawyer turned U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the landmark case Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma, which sought to prevent the university from denying Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher access to law school. Hall also represented the Association of Negro Teachers and led the fight for equal pay for teachers in Freeman v. Oklahoma City School Board (1948). He was then appointed as a special judge in Tulsa and became the first African American to be elected as a judge in the state.
Hannah Digg Atkins once was described in these opinion pages as “the antithesis of class and humility”. Much like Luper, she too got things done, but in her own way. Leaving her role as state librarian in 1968, she was motivated by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to run for office. During her 12 years in the Legislative Assembly, Atkins fought for child welfare, health care, and tax and mental health reforms. And, yes, she had a few “firsts” behind her name, including the first woman to chair a House committee in the Oklahoma Legislature. Republican Governor Henry Belmon appointed her Secretary of Social Services and Secretary of State of Oklahoma. And President Jimmy Carter appointed her a delegate to the United Nations.
Luper and Atkins had different leadership styles, but both women commanded respect. When they spoke, everyone listened. People who knew them well say the women were more alike than they were – strong women who supported each other. Even their children joined in Luper’s sit-in activities.
I never believed that you had to wait until people were dead to honor them. Too many people have died not knowing how much they inspired others to continue the work that would change the system of racism and improve outcomes for future generations. So today’s tribute also includes three people who are still with us: Vicki Miles-LaGrange, MT Berry and JC Watts. Each was the first African-American in her role: Miles-LaGrange as the first American woman lawyer in Oklahoma and the first African-American judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit; Berry was the first black police chief in Oklahoma City (no person of color has held that position since); and Watts was Oklahoma’s first black congressman, rising to Republican leadership roles to serve on key committees.
Like those before them, these three have shown the courage to step forward and lean into leadership roles, aspiring to make a difference in the lives of Oklahomans and all Americans.
All of these stories aren’t just black history — they’re part of Oklahoma history, part of a legacy that all Oklahomans should know and appreciate.