- Associated Press - Monday, December 8, 2014

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - On a field trip to the Ouachita Mountains in southern Oklahoma, a class from the University of Tulsa stopped for lunch in Muskogee. One student didn’t get off the bus.

“Miss Jackson,” the instructor said, coming back to look for her, “are you coming?”

“No,” she said, firmly. This was the early 1950s, and Barbara Jackson was one of the first black students to enroll at TU, the Tulsa World (https://bit.ly/12onB3k ) reported.

She was the only black student on this trip. Back then, she couldn’t be sure if a white restaurant would let her in the door.

“Well, why don’t you come find out?” the instructor suggested.

“Because,” Jackson said with a bit of a smile, “I’m not nonviolent. If I have to leave, I might kick something over on the way out.”

Jackson had been riding next to a white student named Barbara. Barbara Cooks, maybe? After all these years, Jackson can’t be sure about the last name. But Barbara came back to the bus.

“If you can’t eat,” she told Jackson, “I won’t either.”

Actually, Jackson had anticipated a situation like this. She had packed a sack lunch. So the two young women, alone on the bus, shared it.

That’s how segregation ended at TU. Not with a National Guard escort. Not with a freedom march. No cameras. No court orders. No protests. Just students sitting down next to each other.

Apparently, it was all done so quietly that it barely left a mark on the historical record. Neither the TU administration nor the Tulsa Historical Society can find much information about the desegregation of the campus. Exactly when and how it happened, no one seems to know.

Now, at age 90, Jackson is one of the last surviving members of that first group of African-American students. Time and age have made the memories a little spotty, and she can’t answer many of her own questions.

“How did we come to know that we could enroll?” she wonders. “Why were we kept away from the other students? How long did that go on?”

Raised in Oklahoma City, Jackson did her undergraduate work at prestigious Spelman College in Atlanta before moving to Tulsa in the late 1940s. She was already a wife and mother before she decided to continue her education.

Her first TU class, Advanced Education Psychology, included a light-skinned classmate with blue eyes.

“Why is she in here?” Jackson asked another student on the first day of the summer semester, 1951. “Why does she want to come over and go with us? She could go to TU.”

That is, white students could go to the main campus. But this classmate, as Jackson found out, wasn’t white. Of mixed race, she counted as black under the rules of segregation. And black students, even after they were allowed to enroll at TU, still couldn’t go to class with white students. Jackson and other black students initially went to classes at north Tulsa’s Carver Junior High, which was an all-black school at the time.

The May 13, 1952, issue of the old Tulsa Tribune explains. The headline reads: “First Negro Degree Candidate Ready for Master’s from TU.”

Anita Hairston - or Mrs. E. L. Hairston, as the newspaper called her at the time - was an English teacher with a bachelor’s degree from Langston University. In 1950, wanting to seek a higher degree, she made a special arrangement with the TU board of trustees. If she could guarantee eight students per class, professors would travel to Carver for night courses and summer school, with black students never setting foot on the TU campus but earning full credit.

When Hairston couldn’t find enough classmates, the university bent the rules and allowed some classes to continue with just three students. She even took a class in child welfare by herself. By the time Hairston earned a degree, 14 graduate students were attending the “Carver classes,” according to the Tribune.

It’s not clear when black students were officially allowed on campus. In the late 1940s, two black students quietly joined an evening class in sociology, with the white instructor basically pretending not to notice and white students agreeing not to say anything, according to “The University of Tulsa: A History, 1882-1972.”

It might have been a similar arrangement later in the 1950s, when Jackson can remember attending class on campus.

“I was treated just fine,” she says. “I can’t say that I was treated any different than anybody else.”

Jackson went on to become a vocal music teacher for Tulsa Public Schools. In the late 1960s, during the district’s long-delayed desegregation, she received a forced transfer from an all-black school to an all-white school - which was still all-white, except for her.

“I didn’t have a problem with it,” she says. “It didn’t make any difference to me what race the children were.”

She retired in 1982, by which time black college students could not imagine having to attend class off-campus at a junior high school. Young people don’t understand segregation, Jackson says.

“They tell me, ‘I wouldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t have gone.’” But Jackson scoffs.

“You would have done just what we did,” she says, raising a finger to emphasize the point. “You would have done what you had to do.”


Information from: Tulsa World, https://www.tulsaworld.com

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