Sixty-five years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional, Oklahoma City Public Schools is still grappling with the “white flight” spurred by integration.
Bruce Fisher, whose mother is civil rights leader Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, attended Northeast Academy, then called Northeast High School, during that tumultuous time. In elementary school, the school he attended was all-black. When he started seventh grade at Northeast, he recalls the school being nearly all white. By the time he reached high school, the student population was nearly all black. Desegregation had benefits but also unintended consequences, he explains.
Rebecca Kaye, Oklahoma City Public Schools’ chief of staff, says the district still has not achieved equity but is undergoing a major restructuring with equity in mind. Under the plan, which the district is calling “Pathway to Greatness,” 15 schools will close and the cost savings will be reinvested in smaller class sizes, full-time music, art and physical education teachers at all elementary schools and science labs at all middle schools.
School segregation in Oklahoma dates back to statehood. Oklahoma’s 1907 constitution mandated separate schools for black and white students and provided a separate funding mechanism for each. Teachers could be charged with a misdemeanor for allowing a black child to attend a white school or a white child to attend a black school.
The U.S. Supreme Court ended legal segregation in 1954 in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, declaring “separate but equal” unconstitutional, on May 14, 1954 — 65 years ago.
Some Oklahoma City schools completely resegregated almost instantly. All-white Creston Hills Elementary was integrated in 1955, and just two years later enrolled only black students. Similarly, Webster Junior High and Culbertson Elementary flipped from all-white to all-black in five years. All those schools are now shuttered.
In 1961, an Oklahoma City optometrist, A.L. Dowell, sued the school district for refusing to admit his son to the all-white Northeast High School. “The benefits inherent in an education in integrated schools are essential to the proper development of all children,” the court judge wrote in his decision to admit the student.
The district fought against integration, but finally implemented the complicated Finger Plan in 1972, which included bussing students to achieve racially integrated schools.
Images from the Desegregation Era
Bruce Fisher attended Northeast during that time. His family became the second black family to live on Springlake Drive, and Northeast was his neighborhood school. He recalls running home from school as students chased him, throwing rocks.
Oklahoma City Public Schools’ oversight ended in 1991 following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, and it opened the floodgates. Between 1991 and 2009, 45 percent of medium and large school districts under court oversight were released.
Changing demographics coupled with the controversial court ruling made it easier for other school districts to terminate their federal integration orders.
The racial and economic divide widened amid a dramatic shift in enrollment patterns. Across U.S. public schools from 1968 to 2011, enrollment among white students dropped 28 percent, but grew by 19 percent among black students and 495 percent for Latinos.
In Oklahoma City, enrollment plunged, from a high of more than 75,000 students in the 1960s to just under 37,000 in 1991, when the Dowell case was decided.
The number of white students has decreased more than 60 percent since the 1990s; enrollment of black students also declined, by 26 percent. But the Hispanic student population has increased eight-fold.