By Damario Solomon-Simmons, M.Ed., J.D.
Sixty-five years ago this year, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher became the first Black person to attend law school in the South when she enrolled at the University of Oklahoma College of Law (“OU Law”). After initially being denied admission because she was Black, and supported by hundreds of small donations from all over the Nation, Fisher filed a lawsuit in 1946 against OU Law. She was represented by legendary jurists Thurgood Marshall (who later became the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice) and Amos T. Hall (who was later became the first Black judge in Oklahoma). Fisher’s lawsuit took two years to work its way through the legal system, but when it was finally heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, the high court ruled that Fisher was entitled to attend OU Law because the state did not have an alternative “separate, but equal” law school for Blacks.
In an attempt to maintain the integrity of Oklahoma’s segregation laws — purpose of which was to keep “the races from mixing in public places“ — the Oklahoma State Legislature hastily created an all-Black law school before the academic year at OU Law was supposed to start. However, Fisher was able to show that the so-called “separate, but equal” law school established for Blacks was inferior.
Fisher, an Oklahoma native, had the same freedom-loving spirit of many Oklahoma Blacks who fought for civil rights with an attitude similar to Black lawyer and newspaper man William H. Twine, who wrote in 1905, two years before Oklahoma Statehood:
Some of us have made our last move and we propose to stand our ground where we have our homes and our investments until h**l freezes over and then fight the devils on ice.
Once Fisher was admitted, OU Law forced her to sit in a chair marked “colored,” and roped it off from the rest of the class. Additionally, Fisher ate in a separate chained-off, guarded area of the law school cafeteria. Fisher often recalled how some white students would secretly share class notes with her and how a few would actually crawl under the chain and eat with her when the guards were not around.
Fisher graduated in 1951 and began practicing law in her hometown of Chickasha in 1952. In 1992, Oklahoma’s governor David Walters appointed her to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, which she noted in an interview, “completes a forty-five year cycle.” She further stated, “having suffered severely from bigotry and racial discrimination as a student, I am sensitive to that kind of thing,” and she planned to bring a new dimension to university policies.
Always classy and committed to justice and equality, Fisher was frequently quoted as saying the decision was “not a decision for Ada Lois, it was a decision for America.” Indeed it was. In fact, today the Oklahoma Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Colbert and Presiding Judge of the Court of Appeals David Lewis are African-American graduates of the Oklahoma College of Law.
Damario Solomon-Simmons, M.Ed., J.D., an honors graduate of the Oklahoma College of Law, is managing partner of SolomonSimmonSharrock & Associates and professor of African and African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He can be contacted at www.solomonsimmons.com or @solospeakstruth.