Bruce Fisher was nervous.
It was 1969, the integration process was underway in Oklahoma City, and “tensions were high,” he said. Fisher, then a senior at Northeast High School, had been called to the vice principal’s office.
Melvin Todd, then the vice principal of Northeast High School, said he wanted Fisher to help put on an assembly with a speaker on the Civil Rights movement. Todd stared at him for a moment, allowing the silence to envelop the room, before Fisher said, “I don’t know nobody like that.”
Todd gave him the name of George Henderson, who had come to OU as a professor in 1967 and worked with figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. After Fisher heard Henderson speak at the assembly, he went back inspired to his Oklahoma City home, where his mother was waiting.
“Mama,” Fisher said. “Y’all should hear this guy named Dr. Henderson. He was awesome. If you listen to what he says, you’ll probably do something yourself around here.”
Little did Bruce know, his mother, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, was the first African American student admitted to OU Law and someone who paved the way for the end of segregation in the U.S. education system.
Sipuel Fisher was honored by the OU community this week, 70 years after her admission to the university, through a luncheon with her children, a dedication of a display in her honor at Monnet Hall and the announcement of an endowed chair position in her name.
“Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher was an everyday person — a young woman from Tulsa and, then, Chickasha, who had the courage, the spirit, the smarts and the love to do superhuman things, such as challenge an ingrained system and win,” said Katheleen Guzman, interim dean of the OU College of Law, in an email.
Fisher applied to OU Law and was turned away in 1946 by then-president George Lynn Cross. He was required to deny her entry based on the color of her skin by Oklahoma law, said Jane Irungu, interim vice president for diversity and inclusion, at the dedication.
Fisher filed a petition to Cleveland County that was eventually taken all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma — a case that would become a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education.
But after this ruling, the university quickly set up an alternative law school exclusively for her to attend. This caused protest on both sides of the argument, and after several new efforts by the NAACP to have other black students apply to OU, the sham law school ran out of money. Cross ordered Sipuel Fisher’s admission in June 1949.
“Dr. Fisher’s victory over injustice set in motion the downfall of other institutional barriers across the nation,” Guzman said. “Our law school, our university and our country are indebted to her steadfast persistence to secure equality for all.”
Sipuel Fisher’s long battle with the judicial system was faced with many instances of "No," "I don’t know" and "It will never happen," said Breanna Hervey, president of the OU Black Student Association, during the reception. But Sipuel Fisher persisted, and her legacy is evident on the OU campus.
“She took that fear that we all have — that was so much of a burden, way too much of a burden for anyone to bear — and she doesn’t just confront it, she confronts it on behalf of us, the greater us,” interim OU President Joseph Harroz said during the reception.
Despite the efforts of Sipuel Fisher and many others, this burden still exists today. OU’s celebration of Sipuel Fisher and other black leaders for Civil Rights Week came after a blackface incident was brought to light by OU’s Black Emergency Response Team.
“On the eve of such a momentous celebration, there were clouds of racism and hatred over our campus,” Hervey said. “But we are not discouraged. Though the work is plentiful, so are the workers and the resources here at the University of Oklahoma.”
Charlene Factory, Sipuel Fisher’s daughter, said she is optimistic that Harroz’s plans for diversity and continued events like these will help to combat racist incidents.
“I don't think it's ever any time to stop (having Civil Rights events). It should always be kept going, and listening to your interim president (Monday) night, I think he has intentions of doing that,” Factory said.
The OU community must decide whether it will accept what happens, or lead, Harroz said.
“We see terrific progress, and we also see the reality of the day,” Harroz said. “People often said to me, ‘Don’t you hope there’s not a racial incident?’ My answer has been on every stop, ‘That’s ridiculous. Of course there will be.’ We here are a microcosm of society, and we have a choice. Are we just going to reflect that, or are we going to actually lead?”
Fisher did not fight her battle for this generation to be silent, Hervey said. The OU community must stand together and support one another.
“This battle (on racism) isn’t just for one community or another, but it belongs to all of us,” Hervey said. “People of color cannot do it alone. Women cannot do it alone. Members of the LGBTQ community cannot do it alone. Neither can first-generation students, or queer students or second-chance students. We need each other. We deserve to be here.”
There is a lot of progress to be made on the OU campus, Guzman said, but the progress that has already been made should not be forgotten amid racist incidents on campus.
Sipuel Fisher went through her journey so the following generations would know there is “no place we do not belong,” Hervey said.
“Ada fought for us,” Hervey said. “And here we are: her wildest dreams.”