Past, present, future: A.C. Hamlin Awards dinner hosted by Legislative Black Caucus

Of the notable moments at the 19th biennial A. C. Hamlin Legislative Black Caucus awards banquet, two in particular may linger longest in the memories of those who were present. 

The first took the entire six-member Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus (five Democrats and one Republican) completely by surprise. Governor Mary Fallin, who was being honored as the state’s first woman governor, announced her intention to sign Senate Bill 73 onstage at the National Cowboy Museum, in front of hundreds of witnesses. 

The legislation, promoted by every member of the caucus, designates the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as Oklahoma’s official state Gospel Song. Lead sponsors for the bill were state Rep. Jabar Shumate, chairman of the Black Caucus, and Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre, one of three special honorees at the gala. 

Shumate and Eason-McIntyre, both Tulsa Democrats, hailed Fallin’s signature on the bill. They stood along with caucus colleagues – Sen. Constance Johnson of Oklahoma City, and Reps. Anastasia Pittman of Oklahoma City, Michael Shelton of Oklahoma City and T.W. Shannon of Lawton — to witness Fallin affixing her signature to the bill. The measure had cleared the Legislature just a few hours before. House Speaker Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, also witnessed the signing moment.

Shortly after the signing ceremony, 10 women and six men from the Langston University Chorale sang the spiritual for an attentive crowd.
The second highly distinctive moment came when Rep. Pittman, an Oklahoma City Democrat, while presenting a plaque honoring Eason-McIntyre’s legislative service and prior decades in social work, related the story of a Caucus meeting where proper honors to the senator were being discussed, and plans made for the banquet. As Pittman related it, “Of course, Judy was there. She said she didn’t need any plaque.” Instead, Eason-McIntyre said she wanted “a Black Panther beret.” At the ceremony, Pittman pulled out such a beret, putting it on Eason-McIntyre’s head and affixing a bright red beret atop her own. 

Moments later, Rep. Shumate made the crowd, including Fallin, roar with delight when he said, “I told Mike [Shelton] I sure was glad Gov. Fallin signed that bill before that beret thing.” 

Despite such moments of humor and repartee, the gala afforded serious honors not only to Eason-McIntyre, but also to the governor and to two other women who have achieved “firsts” in state history: U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange and Tulsa automobile sales entrepreneur Yvonne Hovell. 

Miles-LaGrange, presently chief judge for the U.S. District court in Oklahoma’s Western District, is the first black woman to serve on the federal bench in the six-state Tenth Circuit region. She was also the first female U.S. attorney in the state. Her notable service included service, as late Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s personal appointee, to the International Judicial Relations Committee of the U.S. judicial conference. 

Miles-LaGrange thanked her parents, retired public school educators Charles and Mary Miles of northeast Oklahoma City. She quoted a Langston Hughes poem, expressing hopes American would “be a land where liberty is crowned, and with no false patriotic wreath. … Equality is the air we breathe.”

Hovell was praised for her emergence as a major “player” in car sales. After an early career in Green Bay, Wisconsin, she came to Tulsa 10 years ago and has become a leader in her industry. 

Fallin disclosed a long relationship between her family and Eason-McIntyre, dating back to her mother’s work in social welfare with the future senator. She joined several other speakers and attesting to Eason-McIntyre’s inspiration model as a survivor of breast cancer. 

Eason-McIntyre said Fallin’s support for affording “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” with new official status meant a lot to her because it reflects, “the struggle of all people. They persevered and wrote songs that gave hope and faith.” Eason-McIntyre said, “There are controversies and differences, but we are duty-bound to work for the common good.” 

Other honorees at the gala, and their sponsoring member of the Black Caucus, included Marvin Blades (Rep. Shumate), Dr. Dorscine Spigner-Littles (Sen. Johnson), Michael P. Johnson (Sen. McIntyre), Horace Stevenson (Rep. Shelton), Greta Shepherd Stewart (Rep. Pittman), and A.J. Hair Pizazz/The Jackson Family (Rep. Shannon).

Rep. Shumate hailed fellow Tulsan Marvin Blades for working “to keep the peace in north Tulsa.” Blades is a police officer in the state’s second largest city.

Sen. Johnson, an Oklahoma City Democrat, gave a warm introduction to Dr. Dorscine Spigner-Littles, former secretary to Governor Henry Bellmon. Now at the University of Oklahoma, Dr. Spigner-Littles disarmed the audience with these words: “I have a short speech, and a long speech. My short speech is, ‘thank you.’ My long speech is ‘thank you, very much.’” 

Sen. Eason-McIntyre hailed Johnson, a veteran of the Sooner State’s energy industry, as a businessman who strives “to even things out” for those who are less fortunate. 

Rep. Shelton, an Oklahoma City Democrat, hailed Stevenson as a man “who puts his money where his mouth is,” providing hundreds of jobs at the seven McDonald’s franchises he owns in the Oklahoma City area. Stevenson began his career in food services at Jack Sussy’s restaurant and the Oklahoma City Sportsman’s Club. 

Rep. Pittman introduced Stewart, who has served as the first female executive director for Oklahoma’s Primary Care Association since 1993. The association aims at providing preventive, primary, oral and behavioral health care for Oklahomans who are uninsured or underinsured. 

Rep. Shannon, a Lawton Republican, praised the Jackson family and their A.J. Hair Pizaaz for surviving as a small business for 27 years in the Fort Sill/Lawton community in the southwest corner of the state. He characterized the family and their staff as possessing “distinct grace and humility.”  

Anita Blanton, a television news anchor with Oklahoma City’s KOCO News Channel 5, was mistress of ceremonies for the Hamlin event. Entertainment was provided by the Leon Rollerson Band, a well-known jazz ensemble.

Trena Byas performed the national anthem at the gala. Pastor Michelle K.T. Moulden of Tulsa’s Vernon AME Church gave the opening prayer, while the benediction was offered by Pastor Ray Owens of Tulsa’s Metropolitan Baptist. 

The Hamlin dinner honors the memory of Albert Comstock Hamlin, a Kansan who came to Guthrie (Oklahoma Territory) as a little boy in the 1890s. In the years leading to Oklahoma statehood, African-American residents of the territory, including black Republicans like Hamlin, fell victim to a worsening racist atmosphere.

In 1908, during the first political campaigns after statehood, Hamlin was elected from a heavily black and overwhelmingly Republican state House district. However, the Legislature then passed Jim Crow laws, including a “grandfather clause” barring from elective office the descendants of slaves. Hamlin lost a race for reelection, his district was redrawn, and he then lost a legal challenge to the grandfather clause. He died on August 9, 1912 and is buried in Logan County. 

Today, a portrait of Rep. Hamlin hangs on a wall on the fourth floor of the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, near the offices of the four black Oklahomans now serving in the House of Representatives.