Ed Raymond’s “Gadfly” column in this week’s High Plains Reader is about Jim Crow, the experience Ed had in the South during the years of racial unrest that influenced my own young adulthood in the late 1950s and throughout the 60s. Ed’s article brought back memories.
Going to a high school that was one-third Black and Puerto Rican, I suppose I subliminally understood the separation of the races—though in my frame of reference, that awareness exhibited itself in all the “wrong” ways: walking down the hall arm-in-arm with Winona Green and fooling around in choir practice with Kenny Herd, both friends, both Black. Did I seek or accept their friendship because they weren’t White or did I simply allow an affinity to occur despite our superficial differences? Looking back that far, I can’t say. Shall I give myself the benefit of doubt?
I graduated from high school in 1963 and left home, the only home I’d ever known, for the first time that Fall to enroll in architecture at the University of Oklahoma. I chose OU for two reasons: first, it was a looooong way from home and I needed that distance; and second, I was drawn to the school where eccentric, organic architect Bruce Goff had recently held sway. Goff had left teaching two years before my arrival in Norman and his protege Herb Greene had departed only the year before, but I hoped there would still be enough residual independence for me to explore without shackles.
Dorm life that freshman year happened in the Woodrow Wilson Center, a dorm and dining complex at the far south edge of campus which had been a Naval Air training center during World War II. The dorms were really barracks and “mess hall” more accurately described where we ate. My assigned roommate Lennie Cantrell was from El Paso but I soon made friends with a wide variety of students from various parts of the country. As a Yankee, the “native” population tended to find us brash and fast-talking, so many of my closer acquaintances were from the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon. I did have one very good friend two rooms down the hall—Harold Lee Andrews—who was both Oklahoma-born and Black (as we said then, rather than African American).
Harold was from Oklahoma City and had been raised by what has all too often been a norm in Black America: the fatherless household. I never met his mother, but I did get invited to Oklahoma City (only 20-25 miles north of Norman) one weekend for supper at the home of “Big Momma,” Harold’s grandmother. Since I too had been raised by a grandparent, it was a very comfortable evening. Big Momma’s parents, by the way, had been slaves. And I’d comment on the quality of her fried chicken, but that would be a racial stereotype, wouldn’t it.
Harold’s roommate was Calvin Luper, son of Clara Luper, a Black woman engaged in voter registration and other equal-rights activities in Oklahoma and throughout the state, which caused us all to be a bit more aware of what was going on around us. Rumors abounded that early some morning a blazing bottle of gasoline might fly from a passing car into Calvin’s window (we lived on the street side of the dorm) and Harold, me and all the rest of us would be collateral damage. You should be aware that the University of Oklahoma had become fully integrated only two years previous, in 1961.
To prove that point, Harold took me on a walk one day toward downtown Norman—the “town” part of “Town and Gown”—for a visit to the public lobby of the Cleveland County Courthouse, an Art Deco building of no great distinction, as I recall, just south of the CBD. There in that lobby Harold called my attention to a wall with two drinking fountains, mounted at the same level. You could never mistake them as intended for adults and children. Above each fountain there were patches of institutional green paint that differed from the equally offensive institutional cream that surrounded them. Multiple layers of paint had built up quite an edge, so whatever covered those two green rectangles had been there a very long time. Harold had to explain to me, a Northerner who had never seen such a thing, that these had only a year or two earlier been the location of signs identifying the drinking fountain for Whites and the identical fountain for Everyone Else (that expansive label meant Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics). As an eighteen-year-old, that afternoon was an important moment in my coming of age.
As an electrical engineering major, Harold had signed on for a five-year curriculum, just as I had done in architecture. We had plenty of time to grow in parallel, though I suspect Harold grew more than I did. Eventually he married a beautiful young woman named Amour, though I can’t recall her last name. And I was honored to be a groomsman in their wedding, the first ceremony in the new Angie Smith Chapel at Oklahoma City University, a Methodist-affiliated school with a large percentage of Black students. Incidentally, the Smith Chapel had just been dedicated, a design by noted ecclesiastical architect Pietro Belluschi; it’s stained glass windows were a rare example of good liturgical art in an era not known for such quality. Also, by the way, there was one White bride’s maid, but we were organized by height, so I escorted another beautiful Black woman and recalled my high school friend Winona Green as we marched toward the altar.
The bottom line here—literally—is how racially progressive Agincourt may have been during these years. Remember the Ku Klux Klan was a Northern institution and there had once been a chapter in Hillsboro, North Dakota, for krysake. These are issues I’m not anxious to explore—yet eventually I must.