On the Shoulders of Giants: Reflections on black history in Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY — On January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born.

I wasn’t born until 1954, just before King’s most visible years in American life. My parents made sure their little brood of Oklahoma City Catholics â four girls and me, the eldest  knew that this family supports the Bill of Rights, the Constitution of the United States, and civil rights for all.

My whole life, I have been blessed to witness history, in the lives of neighbors.

T.W. Shannon and the other black leaders now or recently in the state Legislature Kevin Cox, Judy Eason-McIntyre, Jabar Shumate, Connie Johnson, Michael Shelton, Anastasia Pittman, Angela Monson, Opio Toure — stand on the shoulders of giants.

Like every state in the Union, when it comes to race relations Oklahoma has its share of shame, including the Jim Crow laws of early statehood, and the Tulsa Race Riot in the early 1920s.

The plus side of the story began, in many ways, with the first black man elected to the state Legislature — Republican A.C. Hamlin in 1908. Originally a Kansan, he came to Oklahoma Territory in 1890, was active in GOP politics and easily won his first election. He represented an area of Logan County, in and around Guthrie.

The first state Legislature rewrote the political rule book to make it impossible for most blacks to vote. Rep. Hamlin lost in 1910, and died in 1912. They took some things away from him, but can never take away his place in history.

Also in those early days, a young black lad grew up in Oklahoma City, in the Deep Deuce neighborhood along N.E. Second, participating in junior ROTC programs, including a memorable march through downtown Oklahoma City at the end of World War I. That boy, Ralph Ellison, grew up to write, Invisible Man, selected by New York Times critics as the greatest American novel of the first half of the Twentieth Century.

There is a role of honor from Oklahoma’s first half-century. On it are hundreds of names in addition to Hamlin and Ellison — those who fought with dignity to secure for themselves and their posterity a piece of the American, and the Oklahoma, dream.

The early days of that dream lie in the realm of history for me.

In the here and now, over nearly six decades, I have watched as the promise of territorial and early statehood days has been renewed in practical ways for more and more Oklahomans.

African-Americans have assumed a share of political power and representation in both political parties. Memories of the shenanigans that removed Hamlin from political life and of the riots that destroyed Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” continue to haunt, yet it seems that hope is the one constant in the Oklahoma story.

Sworn in last week, Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon speaks and acts like a mainstream modern conservative Republican — and, to some extent, that’s the point of his role in history.

Shannon’s elevation to the top job in the “people’s house” is the latest chapter in a bipartisan story of progress leavened with injustice, leavened still more with hope and finally renewed in a fresh era of opportunity.

In the last 60 years, individuals like Jimmy Stewart, Clara Luper, Hannah Atkins, Vicki Miles, Charles Owens, Russell Perry, and J.C. Watts have played their parts in that story.

When I was a boy, Jimmy Stewart worked for one of the local utilities and became a quiet leader of the black community, late in his life joining the State Fair Board as its first black member, albeit on an ex official basis. (A decade back, Vicki Miles co-authored a biography of the man I always called “Mr. Stewart.”)

After Dewey Bartlett became the second Republican and first Roman Catholic governor in Oklahoma history, he had the opportunity to fill an Oklahoma County district judicial vacancy. 

He chose Charles Owens, an attorney my father respected deeply.

At first, the consensus in Oklahoma City was that Charlie Owens had two strikes against him â he was appointed by a Republican, and he was black.

Many assumed Owens would lose when voters got their first chance to pick an alternative. Instead, he went to on to become one of the longest-serving district judges in state history, winning stronger and stronger majorities until his scattered critics gave up trying to defeat him.

(In January 2013), the retired Judge Owens administered the oath of office to Oklahoma Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Colbert, the first black man in that position.

In one of those ironies of life, because I grew up in the inner city and near the east side, most of the black leaders I’ve known have been political liberals and Democrats like Atkins and Luper, both now deceased — and, my still vibrant schoolmate Vicki Miles.

First of these three, not chronologically but in my heart and affection, is Vicki. She earned her stripes in public policy working as one of “Hannah’s helpers” and “Clara’s girls.” 

My parents deeply respected her father and mother, Charles and Mary, career educators who between them formed two generations of black leaders in this community.

Vicki and I attended high school together. When my first political hero, Gov. Bartlett, faced David Hall in the 1970 gubernatorial race, Miles and I debated for the first time â me for Bartlett, her for Hall.

She was incredible passionate and articulate. She told me, years later, she thought during my defense of Bartlett, “Damn, he’s good.” And then, there was that class in theater, and the scene where I kissed her. We’ve been friends ever since.

When she went to Girls State and was elected governor, for the first time in history the sponsoring organization decided they would send the lieutenant governor (a white girl) instead of the governor to Girls Nation.

At McGuinness High School, we were ready to storm the ramparts on her behalf, but she asked all of us to stay calm, prayed for a couple of days, and then quietly accepted the sponsors decision. It was not the decision any of us had expected, but it had the effect of cementing our affection for her.

Vicki would later secure a stellar college education and law degree, work for District Attorney Bob Macy, win election to the Legislature and then an appointment as U.S. attorney early in the Clinton years.

At The Oklahoman newspaper one day in 1993, when I was Edward L. Gaylord’s editorial writer, we sat discussing Vicki’s nomination by a man (President Bill Clinton) for whom Mr. Gaylord had minimal regard.

All he asked me was, Isn’t that Charles and Mary’s girl? I answered, “Yes, sir.” He told me, Then we have to help her. They are good citizens. She later became a federal district judge, a position she still holds.

Vicki was formed not only by her parents, but by leaders like Mrs. Atkins and Mrs. Luper.

History will remember Hannah Atkins as the first black woman elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives, as a Democrat.

She also served as part of the U.S. delegation at the United Nations. In his second term as governor, Republican Governor Henry Bellmon (whose first term began on Jan. 15, 1963) reached across the aisle to make the long-time legislator his Secretary of State. That choice made her the highest ranking black in state government up to that time.

My memories of her are not political, but deeply personal. Mrs. Atkins was easy to love. When her son Charles and I were in high school, we ran track together. I was a distance runner; he was a sprinter and high jumper.

Hannah and my mother, Bonnie, spent time talking about life issues while supporting their sons on the cinder tracks of those days.

After high school and then college, I lost contact with her for a time. After spending the 1980s working in the nation’s capitol, I returned to Oklahoma to write for Mr. Gaylord. As we renewed our acquaintance, Mrs. Atkins became a valued contact and source, and then a friend.

We served together on the KIDS (Keep Improving District Schools) Project, sponsored by the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation. That project undertook a comprehensive look at functioning public schools in other states. A group of us, including Hannah, made a memorable trip to examine effective schools, including visits to Harlem.

As an adult I assessed her in more nuanced ways than I had as an adoring lad. The work we did with a few others laid the basis for the MAPS for Kids program that financed improved physical plants in the Oklahoma City public school district.

Hannah combined high-minded idealism and pragmatic direct action. In terms of policy, she was a liberal. Still, her self-designation as a “flaming moderate” was apt. She was kind, and during a long tenure in the public eye drew a circle of friendship around many who disagreed with her policy prescriptions.

While I was Mr. Gaylord’s editorial editor, Hannah was part of my Opinion Board of Contributors. She was thoughtful and compelling in communication. I will never forget her tender admonitions when we disagreed  and how respectfully she listened to Bruce and Bonnie’s boy after he became a man.

I loved her and admired her deeply.

Only a year later, Clara Luper passed away, in June 2011.

Mrs. Luper came to prominence in 1958, when she led a small contingent of adults and members of the NAACP youth council in a sit-in at the Katz Department Store soda fountain in downtown Oklahoma City. Refused service that first time, the group returned every Saturday morning until the chain announced they would integrate stories and end segregation in business practices.

In later years, she was the first African-American to attend graduate school at the University of Oklahoma. She made a huge difference in our state.

Her most impressive legacy, perhaps, was an ability to influence and persuade even those who disagreed with her tactics or style. Indeed, in the news obituary in The Oklahoman, Luper was noted for “a calming, practical influence for cooperation in race relations.”

On occasions back in the 1990s, Mr. Gaylord began meetings with members of his editorial staff by saying, with a slight smile, “Clara called me.” I quickly learned that brief comment always served as preface to an assignment for an editorial or commentary on some matter of importance in the state’s capital city, and occasionally on matters of national significance.

That’s how I got to know her  carrying out assignments from the boss. In 2002, Gaylord supported lasting honors to Luper, including a scholarship program bearing her name at Oklahoma City University.

Some years back, Russell Perry  publisher of The Black Chronicle, and a veteran of the Gov. Frank Keating administration, where he served as Secretary of Commerce  was added to the Fair Board as a full-fledged voting member.

Mr. Gaylord seconded that motion in a meeting held at the Petroleum Club, in what was then the tallest building in downtown Oklahoma City. Perry later told me that when the meeting was over, he stood by himself looking out, from the top story of the club’s building, at the city and state he loves.

As Russell walked down the stairs by himself, remembering, he told me later, “I felt at peace, and happy over what had just happened.” As he rounded the corner of the club’s grand staircase, standing at the bottom step was E.L. Gaylord. Russell walked down without speaking. Edward put out his hand, and said, rather shyly, “Welcome aboard, Russell.”

On 9-11  September 11, 2001  during his years with Gov. Keating, Russell, as part of the governor’s emergency management team, was called into an emergency meeting not long after the terrorist attacks on America became apparent.

After that meeting, he called to ask that I take his place at a speech Stillwater, where I explained to business students at Oklahoma State University the journalism business to which Russell and I have devoted our careers.

After I left The Oklahoman, Perry offered me some “stringer work,” but that’s not all. Older and wiser, he counseled me in the ways of patience, and impatience  and when one is preferable to the other.

One of the first editorial endorsements I wrote for Mr. Gaylord, in 1990, was to support J.C. Watts for the Corporation Commission, the state body that regulates utilities and the energy industry. The former University of Oklahoma quarterback, a Republican, went on to win election to the congressional seat for southwest Oklahoma, in a majority white district.

And, from the heart of that same congressional district came T.W. Shannon, elected to the state House from a majority-white district.

At the age of 34, Speaker Shannon is being touted as a future member of Congress, or in a statewide elective office. Time will tell how resilient and conservative he really is, but he sure talks the talk, and acts like the real thing.

In his own life and in the history of this young state, he’s had some excellent role models. And, he stands on the shoulders of giants.

NOTE: This essay first appeared on January 15, 2013.