6 notable black Oklahomans you should know about
Editor's note: This is the second part of a multi-part series highlighting Oklahoma's black history that will be published throughout February in honor of Black History Month. Read the first part: 5 things about Oklahoma’s civil rights movement you should know
Oklahoma wouldn’t be the state it is today without the involvement of the black community. With a history as rich as rich gets, black Oklahomans from all walks of life have contributed to Oklahoma’s identity since statehood.
Here are six notable black Oklahomans you should know about. And though some aren’t Oklahoma-born, they all once called this place home and helped shape the state into what it is today.
Charlie Christian is one of the all-time greats of jazz guitar who got his start in Oklahoma City when he was a young boy. In order to help his family out with finances, Christian would tag along with his brothers and blind father to some of the more affluent neighborhoods where they’d work as buskers — street musicians/entertainers.
Christian began learning jazz guitar and would perform in the Deep Deuce area of Oklahoma City to enlivened crowds. From there he began playing alongside jazz great Benny Goodman, who was one of the first four bandleaders to play with black musicians.
Christian was one of the first inductees into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.
Chickasha’s own Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher was a key figure in Oklahoma’s civil rights movement. She challenged segregated higher education by applying to the University of Oklahoma law school in 1946.
Two years later the United States Supreme Court ruled that the college must provide the same level of education to blacks as they do to whites.
Ada was the first black person to be admitted to OU’s law school, but she still dealt with racism and segregation on a daily basis. She was given a chair labeled “colored” to sit in, which was located in a roped-off area of the classroom, and had to eat in a chained-off section of the cafeteria, separate from other students.
She graduated in 1951 with a law degree, and her fight and struggle made waves throughout the nation.
Rentiesville, Okla., is historical for many reasons, two of them being: It’s one of the original 50 all-black towns in the state, and it’s the birthplace of civil rights activist and historian John Hope Franklin.
Franklin was alongside many other people during the voting rights march in Selma, Ala., and he rose above racism to earn a doctorate from Harvard.
He also wrote the important historical text “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans,” which looks at American history from the black perspective.
He went on to become the first black person to lead the American Historical Association and, in 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded Franklin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Ralph Ellison, an Oklahoma City native, used the written word as a tool of moral philosophy and his most important work, “Invisible Man,” took a hard look at the issues blacks faced in the early 20th century.
The book was borne out of Ellison becoming disillusioned with the Communist Party, a group he and friend/mentor Richard Wright both associated with before World War II. It was then that the pair realized the party had turned its back on the black community.
In 1975, Oklahoma City named one of its public libraries after Ellison.
Hanna Atkins was a people person who fought for civil rights, women’s rights, child welfare, mental health reform and more during her tenure in the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1968 to 1980.
And she did it all as the first black woman elected to the Oklahoma House.
Then President Jimmy Carter named Atkins to a United Nations assembly where she worked on social and economic issues.
Then she came home to Oklahoma where she did a little bit of everything: Consulted the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, became Assistant Director of the Department of Human Services, was named Secretary of State, and supervised various large Oklahoma departments such as the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Corrections.
Of course Atkins had to deal with racism and sexism along the way, but she had this to say in reflection of that:
My daddy told me, ‘Don’t ever let that stop you. You have your ambition and you go ahead and do what you think you’re cut out to do. Don’t let any of those things stop you,’ and I tried to live that way.