This year marked a new milestone for Oklahoma’s legal system, when Judge Carlos Chappelle became the first African-American to be presiding district judge in Tulsa County. Judge Chappelle joins several other African-Americans occupying prominent roles in the Oklahoma legal community, including Tom Colbert, Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court; David Lewis, Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals; Vickie Miles LaGrange, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma; and Danny Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma.
These leaders in our justice system are living up to the legacy set sixty-six years ago by Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher when she integrated the University of Oklahoma College of Law. In fact, Fisher became the first Black person to attend law school in the entire South when she was finally enrolled at OU Law in 1949. Her story is one that should be known and cherished by all Oklahomans.
Fisher was a native Oklahoman who graduated high school as class valedictorian. She graduated with honors from Langston University and then applied to law school at the University of Oklahoma in 1946. After being denied admission because of her race, Fisher filed a lawsuit against OU Law. Fisher was supported by hundreds of small donations from all over the country and represented by legendary jurists Thurgood Marshall (who later became the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice) and Amos T. Hall (who later became the first Black judge in Oklahoma). Fisher’s lawsuit took two years to work its way through the legal system, but the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that she was entitled to attend OU Law because the state did not have an alternative “separate, but equal” law school for Blacks.
In an attempt to maintain Oklahoma’s segregation laws — which were meant to keep “the races from mixing in public places” — the Oklahoma Legislature hastily created an all-Black law school five days before the academic year was to begin. The Langston University School of Law was thrown together in the State Capitol’s Senate rooms. Fisher was able to show that this so-called “separate, but equal” law school established for Blacks was an inferior shame.
The struggle did not end with one legal victory. Once Fisher was admitted, OU Law forced her to sit in a back-row chair marked “colored”, roped off from the rest of the class. She was forced to eat in a chained-off, guarded area of the law school cafeteria. Fisher recalled that some white students would secretly share class notes with her, and a few would actually crawl under the chain to eat with her when guards were not around.
After a later Supreme Court decision ended separate-but-equal laws in higher education, Fisher said, “I came to school that Monday and there wasn’t a (‘colored’) sign in sight. So I moved right down to the front row, right directly in front of the instructor, and I haven’t sat in the back row since.”
Fisher graduated in 1951 and began practicing law in her hometown of Chickasha. In 1992, Governor David Walters appointed her to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, which she noted in an interview “completes a forty-five year cycle.” The Oklahoma Bar Association now honors individuals and organizations with the annual Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher Diversity Awards, which OK Policy was a proud recipient of in 2013.
Though we’ve made progress through the courage of Fisher and others, devastating racial disparities still exist within Oklahoma’s legal system. We need to continue the work of rooting out that injustice, for the sake of all of us. As Fisher said, her legal victory was “not a decision for Ada Lois, it was a decision for America.” Indeed it was!
Damario Solomon-Simmons, Esq., M.Ed., is the managing partner of SolomonSimmonSharrock law firm and Legislative Liaison for Oklahoma Policy Institute. He is also an adjunct professor of the University of Oklahoma’s African & African-American Studies Program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @solospeakstruth on Twitter.