One year before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I started kindergarten at John Burroughs Elementary School in Tulsa, Okla. I was one of two white students in Miss Walker’s morning class. This didn’t bother anyone — except for the white 7-year-old bigot who lived down the street, who told me that my school was full of … well, you know what he said.
After the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which established that separate white and black schools were not equal, Tulsa first attempted to desegregate schools without inconveniencing its white citizens. Forced by law to integrate, the Tulsa School Board instituted a policy allowing any parents to freely transfer children from a neighborhood school if their child’s race was in the minority there. So, white kids left their mixed neighborhood schools, and transferred to majority white schools. This policy was endorsed by the Tulsa Health Department.
Since we attended the parish school, which didn’t offer kindergarten, it didn’t matter if we were the only whites. Catholic schools were naturally integrated because they didn’t racially discriminate: tuition is tuition.
In September 1973, I started my sophomore year at Booker T. Washington High School, Tulsa’s traditionally black neighborhood school. I was one of about 550 whites recruited to attend the magnet program, along with about 550 blacks. The projection was to recruit 600 of each, but only 550 whites committed by the deadline. The city had decided to try to save the high school from being closed because of its segregation, by busing in whites and forcing blacks to integrate the other nine high schools in town.
Some pertinent background: in 1921, a young black Tulsa man was wrongfully jailed for indecent behavior toward a female elevator operator, which she actually denied, but it was enough of an excuse for racist whites to attack and destroy the area of Tulsa known as the Black Wall Street. You will hear it referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921; there was no riot, however. It was a murderous attack of whites on innocent black people, who defended themselves.
A business and residential district located just north of downtown, it was one of the few thriving, self-sustaining communities created and maintained by African Americans dating to about 1908, and its existence promoted prosperity and family values familiar to every race.
As a result of the 1921 attack, Tulsa’s blacks lost everything, including population. Those who could, left. Those who stayed attempted a commercial comeback, but there was no support financially, especially no banks willing to lend for rebuilding. Black Tulsans concentrated themselves in a north Tulsa clump, where they were never able to recoup the former wealth and lifestyles they had earlier enjoyed.
Thus, Tulsa’s other growing neighborhoods were developed by real estate interests, and though about 350 black families bought homes that were sold by fleeing whites in the 1960s, black Tulsans never made a mass movement across the First Street line, probably still mindful of the racism that had fueled the 1921 attack.
By the time my parents sold their house on North Main Street in 1967, things hadn’t changed much. Whites got out, and the north remained majority black middle-income two-parent working families. I was almost 10 years old when we moved, so when I was 15, and sitting in the first hour of my sophomore year at Booker T. Washington High School, I recognized a familiar name during roll call, Otis Autry. When I asked him if he went to Burroughs and was in Miss Walker’s morning class, he asked, “Are you Ellen Murphy?”
I was aware that I was displacing black sophomores who lived in Booker T. Washington High’s district, yet were forced to attend another high school. Carver Middle School, Burroughs Elementary and several others began using the same magnet and busing formula to get white students of all ages into black schools and black students into majority white schools.
The popular thinking was to integrate kids early, and maybe eventually integration would no longer be an experiment.
I give this background because our grown daughters are asking why, especially because of this Booker T. Washington High experience from which their parents graduated, they were raised in Johnson County? It’s a long story; stay tuned.
Freelance columnist Ellen Murphy writes in this space on months with a fifth Wednesday.