Community members gathered at Eastern Oklahoma County Technology Center last Thursday to celebrate the memory of a civil rights icon and former teacher in the Choctaw School District.
Clara Luper is credited with beginning the Oklahoma desegregation sit-in movement, that inspired others across the country.
The Dunjee teacher led a group of 14 black students and three adult chaperones to order meals at the whites-only lunch counter at Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City on Aug. 19, 1958.
Luper was arrested 26 times, but continued her civil rights activism until her death in 2011.
In an effort to spread awareness of the close connection between Choctaw and “the mother of Oklahoma’s civil rights movement” Choctaw High School Student Council President Lydia Smith organized the event to fall on Luper’s birthday.
Choctaw Mayor Randy Ross was in attendance to officially declare May 3 as Clara Luper Day in Choctaw.
“If we don’t learn from history we’re doomed to repeat it,” said Ross before he and Smith presented the official proclamation to Clara Luper’s daughter, Marilyn Luper. “I can tell you today our world is much better, and it’s much better because of people like Clara Luper.”
Del City Student Council President Xavier Turner opened the event with a brief speech regarding the importance that Clara Luper’s legacy plays on young people of color.
“Clara Luper knew what could happen in these sit-ins. They could be called names, spit on and dragged out. She really was fearless and courageous in her fight. A lot of those traits she got from being a teacher,” said Turner. “She sadly passed away June 8, 2011. She was 88 years old, but the things we can learn from her can be carried on from generation to generation. Her fight, her passion, her character and her compassion can be applied to everyday life.”
Joining Marilyn Luper as a keynote speaker was fellow former sit-in participant Joyce Henderson.
“All those years mom taught out here at Dunjee, I never had the occasion to come out to Choctaw. I can’t believe that, but I’m very proud that I am here tonight,” said Luper, who reminisced on her time at Dunjee and the Choctaw diploma she earned from graduating.
She explained how the sit-in movement in Oklahoma started after a group of students traveled through the desegregated north, and then back home through the south.
“I couldn’t understand how people could have had that bigotry and hatred in their heart. How could you not know me and hate me? I wondered often about where my mother got her fight from. When people would spit on her, step on her feet and call her names she kept on trucking. She told me the story about her brother who was refused service at the hospital and died, because of the color of his skin,” said Luper. “We were one of the two states with the most segregated laws. However, we didn’t have some of those problems other states had during the civil rights movement. Somehow we were able to work together to change this thing. Things can change, things are changing and it’s up to everyone of us to make sure we never go back to where we were.”
Henderson emphasized her belief that children are capable of changing the world.
“It was Marilyn’s idea. She just said ‘Let’s just go down there. If they won’t serve us let’s just wait until they do serve us.’ I say that because you should never underestimate the ability of a child. A young lady coordinated this event,” said Henderson. “When I got the call from Lydia I was thinking ‘a young lady is wanting to step out and celebrate Clara Luper?’ I told her to not be surprised if no one shows up. She was so excited, but I didn’t want her to be disappointed in case others didn’t share the same excitement. But I think it’s safe to say she should be happy with her efforts.”
Henderson said she and the other children who participated in the sit-ins were too young to have fear, but they knew they were doing something that needed done.
“Something was wrong with that picture. When you couldn’t go into a restaurant, you couldn’t take advantage of recreational facilities, couldn’t go to any school, couldn’t drink out of any water fountain, you couldn’t do a lot of things because of the color of your skin. It didn’t take a scientist to know that something was wrong with that picture,” explained Henderson.
“If we don’t have the same opportunities as everybody else, something is wrong with that picture. Clara Luper was one to say that we’re going to change that picture.”
Henderson explained how Clara Luper’s strict guidance and non-violence policy allowed the children’s sit-in movement to be far more effective than if adults had undertaken the challenge.
Plans are to follow the inaugural event dedicated to the memory of Clara Luper with an event each May 3 in Choctaw.
History of Dunjee
During the segregation era Clara Luper taught at the Choctaw School District’s black site, Dungee High School.
Once known by the term “The Stand-Alone Schools,” Dunjee School offered first through 12th grade for African Americans in a rural area near far east Oklahoma City, Choctaw and Spencer.
Founded in segregation, near the city limits of Choctaw and Spencer, the Dunjee community maintained a separate identity.
Near the corner of NE 41 and Adair, Dunjee was under the jurisdiction of the Choctaw School District until Oklahoma City Schools took it over in the 1960s.
A short time later forced integration would result in the closure of Dunjee.
The historic black school was merged into Star Spencer in the fall of 1972 by the Oklahoma City Board of Education.
Dunjee held an impactful place in Oklahoma’s history through desegregation and the civil rights movement. The school was named for Roscoe Dunjee, who from 1915-55 published The Black Dispatch, a weekly newspaper that included his personal editorials on racism and the pursuit of civil rights.
Segregation of schools was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1954, but Dunjee survived for nearly two more decades. But by 1972, the Oklahoma City school board closed the deteriorating school as many of its students were being bused to other schools, primarily Star Spencer.
Following a fire and decades of neglect, what remains of the Dunjee still stands abandoned.