By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
African-Americans have traditionally been subjected to prejudice and bigotry. We have been stereotyped as Aunt Jemima, Sapphire, Uncle Tom and Sambo. We have sat at the back of buses and up front in curtained-off cubbyholes in trains. We have climbed stairs to the balcony in theatres. We have cleaned, cooked and entertained in clubs and restaurants in which we could not be served. We fought to defend our country and make the world safe for democracy in a segregated army.
From the 1996 book, “A Matter of Black and White: The Autobiography of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher” written by Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher.
On January 14, 1946, the University of Oklahoma Law School rejected an application for admission made by Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, a highly qualified young African-American woman. Born Ada Lois Sipuel on February 8, 1924 in Chickasha, Oklahoma to Bishop Travis Sipuel and his wife Martha Bell Smith Sipuel, she was an excellent student and graduated from Lincoln High School in 1941 as valedictorian. On March 3, 1944, she married Warren Fisher and on May 21, 1945, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher graduated from Langston University (the only one of the 125 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States that exists in the state of Oklahoma) with honours.
Sipuel Fisher’s parents along with hundreds of other African-Americans had been forced to flee Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. This is acknowledged in the introduction/foreword of “A Matter of Black and White: The Autobiography of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher” written by Robert Henry: “Racial tension reached its zenith in 1921 in Tulsa. The Greenwood area of Tulsa about two square miles of thriving property owned by African-Americans was left a smoking rubble. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher knew this and more. Her parents left Tulsa as a consequence of the riot, one of the worst in American history. They moved to Chickasha, a more bucolic setting, but still a place shadowed by racism. After all the Ku Klux Klan was the dominant power in Oklahoma in the 1920s.”
It was in this White supremacist culture of 1946 Oklahoma that a brave 21-year-old African-American woman recently married and pregnant with her first child decided to challenge the Jim Crow laws that prevented highly qualified African-Americans from attending law schools. These government-funded law schools benefitted from the tax dollars of the oppressed African-American citizens who were relegated to low wage jobs and lives of poverty.
African-Americans before Sipuel Fisher had challenged the segregation laws which prevented them from entering law schools with disastrous results. One of the more famous cases is that of Lloyd Lionel Gaines who mysteriously disappeared on March 19, 1939 and whose body was never found after that night. Gaines had successfully challenged the University of Missouri Law School’s refusal to admit him as a student. According to an article published in The New York Times on July 11, 2009, entitled “A Supreme Triumph, Then Into the Shadows” written by David Stout: “On Dec. 12, 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that the segregated University of Missouri Law School had to admit Lloyd Lionel Gaines, who was qualified except for the colour of his skin, if there was no comparable legal education available to him within Missouri — and there was not.”
Sipuel Fisher eminently qualified to enter the Oklahoma Law School volunteered to be the person to challenge the segregation law of the time. He challenged the legal fiction of “separate but equal” with the support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a team of lawyers led by famous African-American lawyer Thurgood Marshall. The team filed a lawsuit alleging that the failure of the state of Oklahoma to provide a comparable law school for African-American students required that Sipuel Fisher be admitted to the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
In her autobiography, “A Matter of Black and White”, Sipuel Fisher described the January 14, 1946 morning when she ventured out to apply for admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law. “The day to apply for admission to the law school in order to initiate the legal battle finally arrived. The day, January 14, 1946, was a cold one. While I expected to be rejected, I did not expect a hostile mob awaiting us or that officials would be insulting in any way. We were making a dignified request, and I expected we would be received in a dignified way. I did not know how people would react in the town or around the state. I did not anticipate they would be happy about it, but I was not dealing with them that day.”
On January 14, 1946 Sipuel Fisher was refused admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law even though after reviewing her credentials, the president of the university acknowledged that there was no academic reason to reject her application for admission. However the Oklahoma statutes prohibited Whites and African-Americans from attending classes together. It would take a three-year legal battle before Sipuel Fisher was admitted to the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
Following the rejection of Sipuel Fisher’s application for admission to the College of Law the SIPUEL v. BOARD OF REGENTS OF UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA et al, 332 U. S. 631- lawsuit was launched. The case was settled in the United States Supreme Court after the plaintiffs lost in state courts. Thurgood Marshall argued Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma before the United States Supreme Court that the state law school must open its doors to Sipuel Fisher, because it offered no comparable facility and that the entire doctrine of “separate but equal” should be abandoned. On January 12, 1948, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Sipuel Fisher was entitled to a legal education and that Oklahoma must provide instruction for African-Americans equal to that of White Americans http://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/332/631.
Following the successful challenge at the United States Supreme Court Oklahoma state officials quickly constructed “Langston University School of Law”, a makeshift “law school” in room 428 of the state capitol building in an effort to continue denying Sipuel Fisher entry to the University of Oklahoma. Further litigation was necessary to prove that this law school was inferior to the University of Oklahoma law school. However, before a lawsuit challenging “Langston University School of Law” was resolved, the law school ran out of funds and closed in 1949. The president of the University of Oklahoma law school finally admitted Sipuel Fisher on June 18, 1949, making her the first African-American woman to attend an all-White law school in the Southern U.S.
That was not the end of her challenges. Inside the law school classroom Sipuel Fisher was forced to sit in a segregated seat at the back of the class marked “colored” that was roped off from the rest of the class. She also had to eat in a separate chained-off guarded area of the law school cafeteria. She stayed the course and graduated in 1951 with a law degree from the University of Oklahoma. After passing the bar, Sipuel Fisher practiced law until 1956, when she left legal practice to work as the public relations director for her alma mater Langston University.
In 1981, the Smithsonian Institution designated Sipuel Fisher as one of the 150 outstanding Black Women Who Have Had the Most Impact on The Course of American History. Ironically, in 1991, the University of Oklahoma honoured her with an Honorary Doctorate and in 1992, she was appointed to the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents.
Fourteen years into the 21st century Africans in North America (Canada and the USA) continue to face challenges living in a White Supremacist culture dealing with racial profiling on many levels. We may no longer be “stereotyped as Aunt Jemima, Sapphire, Uncle Tom and Sambo” but we continue to struggle against the negative images that lead to racial profiling. The brave stance of the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) filing law suits against police forces in Ontario that have engaged in racial profiling must be commended and supported as we go forward in this new year.