by Ammie Bryant, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director
February is African American History month. The origins of African American History month can be traced back to the 1920s. Carter G. Woodson was a Harvard-trained historian who also founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Woodson and ASNLH wanted to increase awareness of African American’s contributions to civilization. In 1926, the Association founded Negro History Week and celebrated it during a week in February that encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. As a result of this celebration, Black history clubs were organized, teachers sought instructional materials, and progressive whites showed interest in supporting the effort.
By the time Woodson died in 1950, Negro History Week was an important part of African American life and progress had been made in bringing more Americans to appreciate the celebration. Across the nation, city mayors issued proclamations announcing Negro History Week. Coinciding with the rise of the civil rights movement, the 1960s saw further expansion of consciousness about black history as well as the contributions of African Americans to our history and culture.
In 1976, fifty years after the first celebration of Negro History Week, the celebration was expanded to the entire month of February with African American History month. President Gerald Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
In recognition of African American History Month, we wanted to share the story of an important part of Stillwater’s African American History–Washington School which was located south of 12th street, across from where Southern Woods Park is now.
Segregation of Stillwater schools began with the 1889 Town Charter and lasted until the fall of 1956. A number of territorial, state, and federal laws authorized the policy including Oklahoma’s 1907 constitution, which was the only one in the union with a mandate that black and white children must attend separate (racially segregated) school facilities. Today, these schools are important places that tell the story of local community life as well as a significant part of Oklahoma’s history.
Named for Booker T. Washington, Stillwater’s first separate school opened in 1900 with eleven students and one teacher. It included 1st through 8th grade. To go to high school, an African American student was required to enroll in a “Negro” high school in Oklahoma City, Norman, Guthrie, Tulsa, or the preparatory school at Langston. From 1900 until 1936, if an African American student in Stillwater wished to continue his (or her) education, he had no choice but to move to one of those communities.
In 1936, a brick building was constructed on 12th street, across from where Southern Woods Park is located now, and Washington began offering a High School diploma. Besides academics, Washington offered activities such as marching band and athletic teams that won many state honors in their conference. The school population grew from the original eleven pupils to 113 students and eight teachers by 1954.
In 1954, the pivotal Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education challenged the constitutionality of “separate but equal” schools and led to the desegregation of schools across the nation. By 1956, Washington’s students were integrated into the Stillwater Public School system and Washington began its life as a community service agency.
Washington School continues to hold a special place in alumni memories. It was as a result of one of an alumni reunion that the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History received the gift of the Washington School’s lectern which was presented to the school by the class of 1944 and its athletic bench which was signed by returning students at a reunion several years ago. Washington played an integral role and served as a source of pride in the African-American community. Mrs. Ruth Haskins Johnson, who taught at Washington for twenty years, said about Washington’s students “…they all loved Washington.”
To learn more about African American History Month visit http://www.africanamericanhistorymonth.gov.
Photos courtesy of Gloria Thomas Bailey