By Dr. Ken Bridges
American court rooms have been the stage for many dramatic moments in the nation's history. Some court cases have changed the country, expanding, or sometimes limiting, the definition of legal rights for millions.
One such case in Oklahoma would end segregation in law schools and mark the beginning of the end of the Jim Crow system. The woman behind the case, Ada Sipuel, had a number of connections to Arkansas.
Ada Sipuel was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, in 1924. Her father, the Rev. Travis Sipuel, had also lived in Arkansas for a short time. Her parents had lived in Dermott for three years starting in 1918 while her father tried to plant a Church of God in Christ congregation. They moved to Chickasha in 1921, before her older brother, Limuel, was born.
Ada was a gifted student who dreamed of being a lawyer. After graduating as valedictorian in 1941, she enrolled at what was then called Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College in Pine Bluff, which later became the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
She spent a year in Arkansas, but in the midst of World War II, Ada decided to return to Oklahoma. She enrolled at Langston University in Lawton as an English major. Sipuel married Warren Fisher in 1944. She graduated with honors in 1945.
Around that time, there had been a move among civil rights activists to bring a court case to challenge segregation laws. Limuel Sipuel had initially expressed interest but decided to attend Howard University in Washington, DC. So Ada Sipuel in 1946 decided to take up the challenge and applied for admission to the University of Oklahoma law school. The university's president himself told her how impressed he was with her qualifications and she would have been admitted, but he informed her that state law would not allow her to attend because of the color of her skin.
With the help of the civil rights organization the NAACP, she sued the university for admission. Her lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, had taken up civil rights cases across the country to try to break school segregation and the Jim Crow system. Marshall would later be the attorney for the Little Rock Nine in 1957 and would become a Supreme Court justice in 1967. However, Oklahoma courts upheld segregation.
Sipuel and Marshall took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1948, all nine justices ruled in her favor in the case ruled in Sipuel v. Oklahoma Board of Regents, insisting that she had the right to an equal education.
Oklahoma tried to open a separate law school at Langston University just for Sipuel. But Sipuel argued this was not equal and therefore, unconstitutional. The law school experience, she argued, was more than just a building or a series of books. The interaction with the students, learning directly from the most respected legal minds in the state, and the reputation of the OU Law School could not be replicated or replaced. To get an equal law education in Oklahoma, it had to be OU.
In another hearing, the Supreme Court ordered that the separate law school was unconstitutional and ordered her admission into the regular law school.
She began in January 1949, just after the new term started. Once on campus, she continued to face discrimination and the taunting of bigots trying to push her out of the school. She would sometimes be called names, and someone wrote "colored" on her assigned seat in her classroom. The university also forced her to eat in a segregated dining area, one chained off and under guard. She and other black students also were forced into segregated reading areas at the library. In spite of the indignities thrust at her, she remained to determined to finish her education.
However, in later years, she noted that there were many students who treated her very kindly. She would study with them, and they worked to get her caught up on the materials she missed while she was in court. Some of the white students sometimes would sneak into the segregated dining area that she was forced into and joined her for friendly meals. Well-wishers across the country would send her donations to help with her tuition and fees. Her actions were already having an impact.
Six African-American students applied for admission into the OU graduate school in 1948 but were denied admission. By 1950, using Sipuel's case as a precedent, the court ordered these six students be enrolled. The case, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, further ordered that any segregation of facilities, including classrooms, libraries and dining areas was unconstitutional. Law schools in Texas and Arkansas and elsewhere would soon be desegregated because of the ruling in Sipuel's case.
Sipuel graduated from law school in August 1952. She practiced law for a few years in Chickasha and watched with pride as the Supreme Court struck down segregation as unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, one which would affect schools not only in Oklahoma and Arkansas but across the nation.
After a few years, she turned to teaching, taking a position at Langston University. She rose to become chair of the social sciences department. In 1968, she went back to graduate school and earned a masters degree in history. After 30 distinguished years of service, she retired in 1987.
In 1992, Gov. David Walters appointed her, now age 68, to the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents, where she would help oversee the policies and operations of the university. In interviews afterward, she expressed a great deal of satisfaction at now overseeing the university that tried to reject her. She would help make sure that the door she opened for herself and others would remain open.
In October 1995, she died of cancer in Oklahoma City at age 71. She was honored by the University of Oklahoma with a memorial garden on campus. In 1996, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at kbridges@ southark.edu.