University of Oklahoma
Hidden Legends: Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher
By Anna Bauman
In January 1946, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher first set foot on the North Oval at the University of Oklahoma. What she did that day set in motion a three-year legal battle that would captivate the state, tear down institutional barriers and leave an impact on OU and beyond that remains today.
This is the first installation of a three-part OU Daily series exploring the stories of prominent black women in OU history.
Details in the story are drawn from observation, interviews and Sipuel Fisher’s autobiography, “A Matter of Black and White.”
_ _ _ _
A young woman sits at a desk with one of the country’s most powerful attorneys stationed over her right
In her early 20s, she is the picture of elegance — dark skin contrast against a turquoise dress, eyebrows raised and chin resting on the back of her hand. Her side gaze holds all the hope and defiance of someone intent on righting a wrong.
Behind her, the Oklahoma and American flags fade in the background, a reminder of the institutions Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher radically improved amid the nation’s struggle for racial equality and inclusion that still exists today.
Now, more than 72 years later, the scene is frozen in the rectangle of a copper frame hanging in OU’s College of Law. It’s a painting that always grabbed the attention of Cheryl Wattley as she walked down the brick hallway past it after arriving at OU Law in 2006 as the only black faculty member.
When the now-former OU professor began to unravel the story behind that moment, she dug up answers to many questions: How OU’s law school was desegregated, what legal games the state played to prevent change, what those three years of aloneness were like for the first black person who paved the way for Wattley to walk those same halls.
She was left with one question, though, and the answer still eludes her.
Could I have done what she did?
Law of the land
Sipuel Fisher, accompanied by two representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, pulled into the North Oval of the University of Oklahoma on Jan. 15, 1946, and strode up the steps of Evans Hall to apply for admission to the law school.
She was anxious and apprehensive, but felt slightly relieved knowing her presence would make those sitting in the wood-paneled office feel even more so.
They handed then-OU President George Lynn Cross her college transcript from Langston University. It met every demand of the law school and university admissions process, but still, the 21-year-old knew what the administration’s decision would be before she even set foot on campus that day.
Rejected — on the basis of race.
Still, the NAACP left campus with the only victory it needed: a letter stating that Sipuel Fisher was denied admission to the law school not due to a lack of scholastic qualifications, but because the Board of Regents explicitly instructed the OU president to refuse admission to African-Americans on the basis of state law.
Thus began the three-year legal battle that would wind its way through county, state and federal courts until it reached the Supreme Court of the United States, ultimately paving the way for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated all public schools six years later.
“Her decision became the beginning of the voluntary desegregation of graduate programs and then ultimately institutions of higher education,” said Wattley, whose interest in the painting compelled her to write “A Step Toward Brown v. Board of Education: Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher and Her Fight to End Segregation.”
But long before she set foot on an all-white campus, before her name dominated headlines across state papers, before she made history, Sipuel Fisher described herself as a sassy, smart-mouthing girl growing up 30 miles south of Norman in the small town of Chickasha.
Her parents knew firsthand the hatred of racism. They fled Greenwood, Tulsa, in 1921 after a young black boy was accused of assaulting a white woman in a downtown elevator, sparking a bloody race massacre that left 300 dead and the town, then known as Black Wall Street due to its prosperity, in smoking ruins.
In the fall of 1945, Sipuel Fisher’s mother received a call from a prominent Chickasha doctor and a close family friend who wished to drop by for a visit on important business with Sipuel Fisher’s brother, Lemuel Sipuel, three years her elder.
Bob Bullock, director of Chickasha’s NAACP chapter, sat chatting for a short time in the Sipuels’ home — large for the community’s standards, with a telephone and console radio and large potbellied cast-iron stove that warmed the living room. But he was really there on official business.
The law of the land at the time was “separate but equal,” meaning white people and black people were educated separately in supposedly equal manners. Bullock laid out the issue the NAACP was gearing up to tackle. The University of Oklahoma had a law school for white students, but it did not allow black people to attend. The state did not meet the separate but equal standard, he said, because a law school for black people was nonexistent.
The request was straightforward: The NAACP needed a plaintiff. Representatives like Bullock were scouring the state to find the right individual, and Lemuel’s impressive scholastic records, interest in law and status as the son of a politically active mother and prominent pastor made him a prime candidate for recommendation.
It had to be an individual who not only had the brains but also the fortitude to withstand a long and probably bitter controversy. Bullock asked Lemuel if he was ready for the task at hand.
But Lemuel, who had recently returned from three years of military service, was in a hurry to begin law school. He appreciated the offer, but declined.
Another option was sitting in the room, though. Ada Lois had been valedictorian of her high school class, an honor student at Langston University and had the full support of her older brother and parents. They did not even have to ask if she was interested. Immediately after her brother turned down the offer, she began to hope for the chance herself.
There were many risks inherent to the decision. Sipuel Fisher knew that Lloyd Gaines, the last NAACP plaintiff in a similar case in Missouri, had disappeared and was never seen again. She knew the stories of lynchings passed down in her community. She remembered when she was 6 years old and her father sat all night with a cocked firearm after a 19-year-old black man, Henry Argo, was accused of raping a white woman.That night Argo was shot through the concrete wall of his Chickasha jail cell and stabbed through the heart by someone in an angry lynch mob that smashed the wall down.
“When you start talking about the significance and courage of her decision, it wasn’t in a vacuum,” Wattley said. “It was against this backdrop.”
About 10 days after the home visit, Bullock drove Sipuel Fisher to Oklahoma City to meet with Roscoe Dunjee, an NAACP activist who, along with attorneys Thurgood Marshall and Amos T. Hall, was spearheading the fight. It was a short meeting. The next week, the Sipuel household celebrated after it received the news that Sipuel Fisher had been selected.
Decades later, Sipuel Fisher was chatting and eating lunch with a former mayor at an OU legal forum when he posed a difficult, pointed question. Why agree to become the guinea pig in one of the earliest civil rights struggles in the country, knowing the dangers and risk involved?
Sipuel Fisher’s answer was simple, but decisive.
“It was wrong.”
‘Measuring Jim Crow’s neck’
The ensuing court battle resembled less of a battle and more of a slow and arduous process with small victories beset by disappointment and setbacks at every turn.
Her case against the OU Board of Regents was denied in Cleveland County District Court in July 1946, and denied the next April in the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Finally, it reached the highest court in the country. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case in January 1948. Sipuel Fisher recalls what this meant to her in her autobiography, “A Matter of Black and White.”
“There it was,” she wrote. “We were measuring Jim Crow’s neck for the executioner’s noose. Deliberate and farsighted strategists, brilliant and impassioned litigators, obstinate and insensitive state policy makers, and a very angry plaintiff had come together in one place at one time to confront the nation’s highest tribunal with a lawsuit that tested the meaning of our nation’s constitution and the quality of its conscience.”
By then, it had been more than two years since that day in her family’s living room when Sipuel Fisher had eagerly accepted a role in what she knew would be a long, expensive and bitter process. Lemuel was completing his second year at Howard University School of Law. His sister had yet to enroll.
Finally, on Jan. 12, 1948, the Supreme Court delivered a unanimous verdict, which Sipuel Fisher wrote felt like Christmas, New Year and the Fourth of July all wrapped up in one large, beautiful package. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher was “entitled to secure legal education afforded by a state institution.”
It didn’t take long for the initial jubilation and plans to enroll immediately at OU to be cut short.
In a last-ditch effort to prevent Sipuel Fisher’s admission to the university, the state hastily set up Langston Law School with three attorneys serving as part-time staff. Straight-faced, the state claimed the new school was equal to OU Law.
But it worked, and just like that the case was cast back to where it began, in Cleveland County Court. Sipuel Fisher and her legal team would have to start all over.
The disappointment was felt beyond those directly involved with the case.
Demonstrations and rallies rocked the Norman campus, where students argued on both sides of the case. A university survey printed in The OU Daily immediately after the Supreme Court decision showed 43.6 percent of the student body supported Sipuel Fisher’s entry. One group presented 282 signatures to Cross asking that segregation be continued. Another group burned copies of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in anger at the injustice being dealt by the university.
Despite the state’s feeble attempts to bar Sipuel Fisher from OU, it was too late — the ball had already been set in motion. The NAACP refused to back down, sending six black students to apply to other graduate programs at OU. As a result of the verdict in Sipuel Fisher’s case, George McLaurin was admitted to OU’s College of Education doctoral program in October 1948, as the university’s first black student.
The sham law school quickly ran out of funds, and Cross finally put his foot down. Overstepping the state courts and Board of Regents, he ordered the admissions office to accept Fisher’s application. She enrolled the next day, June 18, 1949.
Each time Sipuel Fisher walked into a classroom, she made her way to the back where a single chair marked with a sign that said “Colored” sat behind a wooden rail.
Sipuel Fisher writes in her autobiography that her classmates and teachers were generally fair and friendly, but the primary feeling during those three years was one of aloneness. “In all the time that I was there, I never quite escaped a feeling of isolation.”
It’s now been nearly seven decades, and still, when Micah Mahdi sits in a classroom, hers is sometimes the only brown face in the room.
Sitting surrounded by books and notebooks in a study room at the back of the law library, the third-year law student, president of the Black Law Student Association and member of the college’s diversity council reflects on the legacy of the woman who made it possible for her to be where she is.
“She paved the way for me to be in this building talking to you,” Mahdi said.
Yet Mahdi is one of few who fully and intimately understand this legacy. This fall, 32 out of the school’s 899 students, or 3.6 percent, identified as African-American. In 2017, that number was 11 out of 611 students, or 1.8 percent.
“I think it would be naive for anyone to say Ada Lois broke a proverbial color barrier and everything has been happy ever since,” Wattley said in regards to these numbers.
Mahdi doesn’t remember first learning about Sipuel Fisher. It was in her constitutional law class during the first year of law school when they studied her case, she says, but it didn’t stand out to her. She wonders if that says more about her as a student or the class itself.
Because the case is not made to be a big deal — just one more reading amid a mountain that students skim or skip entirely — Mahdi guesses that more than half of the students at OU Law graduate without so much as knowing Sipuel Fisher’s name.
That’s why BLSA is intent on highlighting the woman who forever changed the institution that educates Oklahoma’s lawyers.
“We would like for students to come into this building — no matter what you look like — to know who she was and why she’s important and why we all should be thanking her,” Mahdi said. “Because diversity is not just something that’s valuable to black people, Hispanics, gay people, women — it’s valuable to everyone. Because you get the benefit of diversity of thought, you get the exposure to people who don’t look like you so that you can broaden your own ideas and your own view of the world.”
Sipuel Fisher graduated in 1951 from OU Law. She practiced as an attorney for several years before returning to Langston University as a professor and chair of the social sciences department. In 1992, she was appointed to the OU Board of Regents — the same governing body that had first rejected her admission.
Today, wedged between two buildings and beneath the shade of several trees, the Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher garden sits just east of the North Oval, a bubbling fountain in its heart.
A sign overlooking the peaceful sanctuary stands as a testament to the legendary story of Sipuel Fisher.
“The precedents that her deeds established made this a different university, one where diversity is a source of strength. She made Oklahoma a better state,” the sign reads. “She made the United States a better nation.”
It is a place students bustle past on their way to class, a place newcomers admire the campus, a place anyone can go to sit alone with their thoughts. It’s a place, perhaps, where anyone can go to ponder the other question Wattley said she believes Sipuel Fisher’s story should inspire in people of all generations.
“What is going to be your contribution?” Wattley said. “What is going to be that thing that requires you to be courageous, to speak out, to say ‘Something isn’t right,’ — and to invest yourself in proving that that’s not right.”
This article, in its original form, can be found here: View Story