Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), black Oklahomans in the 1940s increasingly tested laws and state policies that upheld segregation, including segregated education. While Oklahoma had a relatively small African American population (about 8 percent at the time of statehood in 1907), a majority of early white Oklahomans had southern roots and thoroughly embraced the concept of white supremacy.

The first legislature, meeting in 1907, had established separate schools for African Americans and heavy fines for administrators, teachers, and students who broke the law. In the state's higher education system the allblack Langston A&M College, created during the territorial era, offered African Americans many programs leading to a bachelor's degree, but Langston had no graduate programs. Instead, the state provided out-of-state educational grants for African American students who wished to go to graduate school. Approximately 2,000 black Oklahomans received such grants between 1907 and 1946. However, such a system was not acceptable to many of the state's African American students, one of whom was George McLaurin, an instructor at Langston who wished to pursue a graduate degree within the state.

McLaurin became a pioneer in the national civil rights movement when he, along with five other African Americans, applied for admission to the all-white University of Oklahoma's graduate program in January 1948. Denied admission, McLaurin applied again in September. Still denied, he sought a remedy in federal court, which ordered the university to admit McLaurin. The ruling, however, did not specifically void the state's segregation laws.

University president George Lynn Cross, who did not personally oppose integration, worked with regents to admit McLaurin while also obeying the state's segregation laws. However, the implemented plan was dehumanizing. The university made arrangements for McLaurin to take his courses in room 104 in the Carnegie Building. Workers constructed an alcove (the NAACP's lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, who, with Robert L. Carter and Amos T. Hall, argued the case before the Supreme Court, called it a "broom closet"), with wooden railings that separated McLaurin from the rest of the class. He had a separate entrance and exit to and from the hall. Mc- Laurin also found that the university had given him a separate-but-equal men's room, a separate table in the student union, a separate table in the campus cafeteria, and a separate library study table with his name on it. These arrangements satisfied neither McLaurin nor the NAACP, whose legal appeal argued that such on-campus segregation hampered Mc- Laurin's ability to study, to take part in class discussions, and to interact further with other students. On June 5, 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ordered the university to end the on-campus segregation of McLaurin.

With this victory, McLaurin v. Oklahoma joined a train of precedents, including Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), Sweatt v. Painter (a 1950 Texas case), and Sipuel v. Board of Regents University of Oklahoma (1945), which integrated the University of Oklahoma Law School and led to the Supreme Court's historic Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka decision of 1954 and the eventual integration of schools nationwide.

James M. Smallwood Oklahoma State University

Fisher, Ada Lois Sipuel. Matter of Black and White: The Autobiography of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

Franklin, Jimmie Lewis. Journey toward Hope: A History of Blacks in Oklahoma. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

Smallwood, James. Blacks in Oklahoma. Stillwater: Oklahoma State University Press, 1981.

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