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Oklahoma Memories

Ada Fisher at Law School

2012-02-04

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"The Sipuel decision was not a decision for Ada Lois; it was a decision for America, it was a decision, a victory for the Constitution of the United States."

That's the voice of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, who was the first black to graduate from the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher graduated with honors from Langston University in 1945 with a degree in English, but she dreamed of becoming a lawyer, a dream that in segregated Oklahoma in 1945 seemed an impossible dream. Langston University didn't have a law school, and state statutes prohibited blacks from attending white state universities.

At the urging of the NAACP, twenty-one-year-old Fisher agreed to seek admission to the OU College of Law in order to challenge Oklahoma's segregation laws and achieve her lifelong ambition of becoming a lawyer. On January 14, 1946, she applied for admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

After reviewing Fisher's credentials, university president, Dr. George Lynn Cross, advised her that there was no academic reason to reject her application for admission, but that Oklahoma statutes prohibited whites and blacks from attending classes together.

On April 6, 1946, with the support of civic leaders from around Oklahoma, including Roscoe Dunjee, the editor of the Black Dispatch newspaper in Oklahoma City, Fisher filed a lawsuit prompting a three-year legal battle. A young attorney, Thurgood Marshall, later a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, represented Fisher.

"The very first time I saw him, he grabbed me, picked me up off the floor, and Dunjee said this is the young lady I've been talking to you about. I was a little bit afraid; I've heard of this great barrister, and I've read about him in the Crisis, and so I timidly stuck my hand out in Dunjee's office, a few days after I first applied, and Marshall knocked my hand aside, and reached and got me, and hugged me and picked me up off the floor and kissed me. We were strangers no more. He was a magnificent man."

Court battles raged, and finally she won. Thus, three years almost to the day that she first applied for admission, she was officially admitted to the OU College of Law.

But the struggle continued.

"They moved all of the white students down to the first three rows and then they left three or four blank rows and then behind the last row they had found a large wooden chair with a big pole and 'colored' written on it so I had to climb the steps, about seven steps up, to get to that colored chair."

And that wasn't all she had to endure.

"We couldn't eat with the other students. We couldn't get in the line with them; we had to go in a side door to get to the cafeteria, and they pulled some steam tables together and put a heavy chain around it, and I didn't understand why they needed a big burly armed guard with a big pistol on his hip standing there guarding our table. Nobody going to kidnap us; I later determined it was probably there to keep the white kids out."

The case became national news, particularly in black communities around the country.

"I understood that they were going to tell me no. I understood that we would end up in court. I don't know that, I was rather surprised at the amount of national attention that the case drew."

In August 1952 Fisher graduated from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. On April 22, 1992, Governor David Walters symbolically righted the wrongs of the past by appointing Dr. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, the same school that had once refused to admit her to their College of Law. On October 18, 1995, she passed away.

You can learn more about the fascinating black history of Oklahoma by visiting the Oklahoma History Center, just east of the state capitol on NE 23rdStreet in Oklahoma City. I'm Michael Dean.