Photo: Oklahoma Historical Society
Before Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher even attended her first grad class, she had already forever changed the face of higher ed. In 1948, the aspiring law student won a three-year court battle that paved the way not only for desegregating graduate education in Oklahoma but for ending legal segregation altogether. Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma was a critical first step in the tortuous road of litigation that made the landmark Brown v. Board of Education possible. The courageous plaintiff continued to make history for the rest of her life as a pioneering lawyer, professor and university administrator. In a fitting close to her storied career as a higher-ed changemaker, she was appointed as a regent at the very university where, 46 years earlier, she had been barred from admission based on her race.
Sipuel Fisher was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma in 1924. Her father was a respected Baptist minister; her mother was active in the NAACP and made W.E.B. DuBois’s The Crisis compulsory reading for her children. When Sipuel Fisher proved a gifted (and self-professed, “smart-mouthed”) student, both parents encouraged her to use her “big brain” to make a difference. And there was plenty she saw that needed changing.
Sipuel Fisher grew up in a town where everything from city parks to phone booths, movie theaters to maternity wards were meticulously segregated. Schools were no exception. As she put it in her autobiography, A Matter of Black and White: “Every southern state claimed to offer separate but equal education to the races, but it was a lot more separate than it ever was equal.” When the high school valedictorian transferred from Arkansas A&M College to Oklahoma’s Langston University in 1942, she was appalled by the conditions on campus and joined a group of students protesting to a local politician for improvements to the facilities. The outright dismissal of their reasonable appeals kindled a new conviction. “Since neither the Lord nor the senator had helped us,” Sipuel Fisher recalled, “we resolved to help ourselves.”
Enter iconic civil rights lawyer and eventual US Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall – Sipuel Fisher’s personal hero ever since she had seen him speak at her school in seventh or eighth grade and dubbed him “the most handsome, articulate, brilliant, and charismatic man I had ever seen.” At the time, Marshall and a colleague at the NAACP Legal and Education Defense Fund were laying out a strategy to challenge Plessy v. Ferguson. The 1896 case had validated the “separate but equal” doctrine that supposedly made segregation constitutional. They knew that they needed to build up a series of incremental victories in the courts in order to completely overturn that damaging legal precedent.
Graduate education in Oklahoma was a logical place to start because there were no state schools for African-American students who wished to pursue an advanced degree. Instead, the policy was to send qualified students to out-of-state institutions. This made it easy to argue that there were no “equal” facilities available to black students, which meant in turn that with each successful legal challenge, the Oklahoma government would be forced to shell out funding to open a completely new graduate school. It was a savvy approach. If moral arguments weren’t enough to end segregation, they’d simply make the price tag for enforcing discriminatory statutes too high to pay.
Now, all they needed was a willing plaintiff. Sipuel Fisher was not their first choice. In fact, the leader of the Chickasha branch of the NAACP came to her family home with the aim of recruiting her brother, Lemuel, but fresh from a three-year stint in the military, he didn’t want any more delays put on his career. When Lemuel politely declined, Sipuel Fisher jumped at the chance to put herself forward as an alternative.
Young, attractive, from a good family, newly married and recently graduated with honors, Sipuel Fisher made an ideal candidate for the starring role in this legal drama. She was cautioned that it would be a rocky ride – protracted, rancorous and potentially dangerous – but she convinced them she had the courage and patience to see it through. She was ready to put her education and even her life on the line for the cause.
So on a January day in 1946, flanked by two NAACP representatives, Sipuel Fisher traveled to Norman to apply to the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law. As expected, she was denied admission. The law prohibited it. If a faculty member or student were to attend a mixed class, each would be charged a fine of between $20 and $50 a day (up to around $650 by today’s standards). However, the sitting OU President, Dr. George Lynn Cross, was sympathetic to their suit. He wrote a letter confirming that Sipuel Fisher met every academic qualification for enrollment. Race was the sole basis for her rejection.
Even with this tacit backing, Sipuel Fisher lost her case in both the district and state supreme courts. It was a different story when Sipuel v. Board of Regents finally reached the US Supreme Court in January 1948: the nine justices ruled unanimously in her favor.
The State of Oklahoma responded to this decisive verdict by hastily setting up a new law school, a branch of Langston fabricated exclusively for the education of Sipuel Fisher. This makeshift facility was quartered in the state capitol building. It was heralded by a cardboard sign and had a faculty consisting of three part-timers. Sipuel Fisher refused to attend. Instead, she was forced to play plaintiff again in another grueling round of court cases to challenge the “equalness” of the education afforded by Langston Law School. But, in a testament to the absurdity of the defense, by the time she was slated for another hearing in the Supreme Court, Oklahoma’s attorney general realized that he was headed for a resounding defeat. He declined to defend the case.
More than three years after Sipuel Fisher’s original application, she was admitted to OU’s School of Law. The class was now mixed, but it was still segregated. She was forced to sit behind a rail in a chair marked “Colored” and eat in her own roped-off section of the cafeteria. By the time she went back for a second grad degree (an MA in History), the whole campus had been integrated for more than a decade.
As a civil rights attorney, Sipuel Fisher helped desegregate the Oklahoma College for Women in her hometown before returning to her alma mater, Langston University, as a member of its faculty. During her tenure there, she served as the Chair of Social Sciences and Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs.
Over time, Sipuel Fisher has become something of a local legend at the University of Oklahoma. In 1991, the university granted her an honorary doctorate, and the state’s governor appointed her to the university’s board of regents the following year. A campus garden was dedicated in her memory following her death in 1995, and a painted portrait of Sipuel Fisher sitting with her counsel Thurgood Marshall hangs outside the Dean of Students office. Recently, OU law professor Cheryl Brown Wattley has done much to spread Sipuel Fisher’s little-known story beyond the Norman campus, authoring a play and an award-winning biography.
Black History Month provides another opportunity to spotlight her legacy and take stock of the progress yet to be made. Indeed, while the number of minority grad students steadily increased over the course of Sipuel Fisher’s lifetime, the stats for black law students have been flatlining or even declining in recent years. It’s discouraging to read reports that African Americans still account for a slim 7% of all law students, 4% of law firm associates and 2% of partners, especially when they make up 40% of another key justice-system demographic: prison inmates. The cascading circumstances that contribute to African Americans’ underrepresentation in the legal profession – among them escalating tuition rates, higher debt burdens, lower acceptance rates at top-ranked programs, lower bar-exam-passage rates and lower incomes once employed – suggest the complex socioeconomic factors that continue to support racist structures and perpetuate racial discrimination. Yet, just like Sipuel Fisher and her trailblazing cohort, a new generation is resolving to help themselves. With a host of organizations and initiatives dedicated to increasing diversity in the national educational pipeline, they’re carrying on the fight for true parity in higher education and beyond.