- Associated Press - Monday, June 25, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Marilyn Luper Hildreth says it is fitting that Oklahoma City recognize the role played by the former Mobil filling station at NE 25 and MLK in the fight for civil rights.

An advisory commission has recommended the Freedom Center be designated a historic landmark.

The building was home base for the NAACP Youth Council and headquarters for activists who fought housing discrimination and organized the 1969 Oklahoma City sanitation workers’ strike.

Its history is inextricably tied to the sit-ins and desegregation campaigns of the late 1950s and early ‘60s.

Vacant for the better part of a decade, the center is an overlooked but important character in the story of the Civil Rights Movement.

In its time, it fulfilled the vision of longtime civil rights activist and teacher Clara Luper to provide a place for children to find their footing in an often hostile world.

“We were able to maintain Freedom Center, not by the wealthy, but by the common, everyday people who worked,” Hildreth, Luper’s daughter, said recently.

The commission voted to recommend the Planning Commission and Oklahoma City Council confer historic status on the building at 2609 N Martin Luther King Ave, the Oklahoman reported.

Hildreth took part, as a 10-year-old member of the Youth Council, in the 1958 sit-ins that led to desegregation of the Katz Drug Store lunch counter in downtown Oklahoma City.

“My mother was a dreamer,” Hildreth told the Historic Preservation Commission.

“She felt that all people were created in God’s glory. She believed that every child could learn.

“She taught school for over 40 years,” Hildreth said, “and all the programs she had were basically geared to young people.”

Luper taught history at Dunjee High School in 1957 when, according to a staff report for the commission, she and her students produced a play about civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

The play caught the attention of NAACP leaders, and the children were invited to perform it in New York City.

Having seen northern cities where segregation was less virulent, they returned to Oklahoma City “ready to push for civil rights in their own community.”

Hildreth said the Oklahoma City sit-ins began in 1958 “with 13 young people - 13.”

“And that changed the course of American history because when we sat down here in Oklahoma City, it was like a wildfire that was spinning across this country,” she said.

The staff report says the Youth Council went on to break down racial barriers at more than 175 Oklahoma City restaurants over the next six years.

The Freedom Center was founded in 1965, led by activists including Dr. Charles Atkins, who was the first African-American member of the Oklahoma City Council.

The Freedom Center acquired the former filling station in 1967 with the goal, as Luper put it, of providing “opportunities for deprived children to grow up properly, to learn the value of self-help.”

The concrete-block building also became a target for hate.

Early on Sept. 11, 1968, the Freedom Center was firebombed. Accounts of the attack and its impact led that afternoon’s edition of the Oklahoma City Times.

One headline read: A Dream: ‘Now It’s All Gone’.

The staff report says no one was ever charged in the attack, despite offer of a cash reward by publisher E.K. Gaylord of the Times and Daily Oklahoman.

In remarks to the commission, Bruce Fisher noted 2018 is the 60th anniversary of the sit-in movement.

Fisher is retired curator of African-American projects at the Oklahoma Historical Society.

His mother was Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, the first African-American to be admitted to the University of Oklahoma law school.

He said historic designation of the Freedom Center would be a major step forward for Oklahoma.

“Oklahoma has precious few, too little, landmarks that represent the contributions of African-Americans,” he said.

A judge has settled a dispute over control of the Freedom Center, naming District 1 Oklahoma County Commissioner Willa Johnson as receiver of the property.

An Oklahoma City man, Michael Washington, had filed papers with the Oklahoma Secretary of State in an attempt to designate himself as registered agent for Freedom Center Inc., the nonprofit that owns the center.

Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish issued an order in April giving Johnson responsibility for the property, including the authority to collect revenues and pay expenses, and make repairs.

Johnson, who retires from the Board of Commissioners after this year, said she was excited to turn her attention to restoration of the center.

She imagines partnering with schools and others for an education center, to have history classes meet there and to have exhibits outlining Oklahoma City’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.

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Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com

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