The OU College of Law will create an endowed chair position in honor of the first black OU Law graduate Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, as announced at an event commemorating the 70th anniversary of her admission.
The College of Law held a discussion with Sipuel Fisher’s children on Wednesday to celebrate her activism as a part of programming for Civil Rights Week.
At the event, associate law professor Melissa Mortazavi announced the new endowment would be to honor Sipuel Fisher’s “spirit, her impact and her commitment to social justice.” She also requested donations for the position, which would be the first crowdsourced professorship at OU and “the first professorship in civil rights race and the law” in Oklahoma.
“I do think that the goal of the chair is to recruit and retain and hire people of similar caliber and commitment to this area of law,” Mortazavi said. "So, often, the state legislature calls on OU law professors for advice, thoughts, consultation on subject matters. And this is an area where we could really make a difference to our students and then the faculty, and then within the state to move law in this direction.”
Mortazavi said the endowment was an idea she came up with over the summer, and she consulted with interim OU Law Dean Katheleen Guzman to make it a reality. The position will require the faculty member to teach at least half of their course load in the subjects of race and equity, and is specifically seeking those with “outstanding experience and expertise” in civil rights, Mortazavi said.
OU has not offered a general course on civil rights since 2002, Mortazavi said, and in her four years at OU, she has seen faculty of color not retained and a lack of courses challenging inequity and social injustice, so this position is meant to improve that.
“I have seen our community struggle to engage in deep informed and meaningful discourse around issues of race,” Mortazavi said. “I hear you calling for change. And I hear you still. ... I’m asking you to join me in raising money (for this position) ... in honor of a woman who didn't spend her legal career out making millions of dollars, but changing millions of lives.”
Bruce Fisher and Charlene Factory, Sipuel Fisher’s children, led a discussion for the main portion of the event on their mother’s legacy and how they were impacted by her. Fisher said they first got involved with the OU Law event several months ago, and he and Factory were shocked that it had already been 70 years.
“We just feel very honored, honored to be here to represent her with those accomplishments,” Factory said.
Factory said she hopes events like these will continue in the future to further her mother’s legacy with students who come to OU Law, who can hopefully carry it on when they graduate.
“I think that there's a story that a lot of people miss, and that is the story about what happened when she was admitted to the law school,” Fisher said. “If she could study and focus on education, and graduating, when she had to sit behind all the other students, in an area with a sign that would say 'colored' ... then surely, students can today when they think that times are tough for them.”
Fisher, who previously served as curator of African American History of the Oklahoma Historical Society, also said the white students who helped his mother once she was admitted can serve as an inspiration for others — as he said, this was the only civil rights case he could think of that had a massive amount of support from white students.
“Her fight was not against the University of Oklahoma, it was a fight against the state regents for higher education,” Fisher said. “The men in the law school ... they shared their books and notes with her ... and she said there’s no way she would have succeeded had it not been for them. So there’s a lot more to the story that I think should serve as an inspiration to the students at the University of Oklahoma than just her admission to law school.”
The event, although planned far in advance, fell just a few days after another blackface incident involving an OU student — the third this year involving the OU community. Factory and Fisher said they are optimistic that interim OU President Joseph Harroz will help work on the issue of racism at OU, as Factory said it is “pretty well-said throughout black communities that OU is a racist school.”
“I don't think it's ever any time to stop (events like these), it should always be kept going,” Factory said. “Listening to your interim president the other night, I think he has intentions of doing that. And being inclusive here at the university more so than they've ever been ... So I think if you can keep it going, this (event) should have good impact on that, I hope.”
Correction: This post was updated at 1:07 p.m. Sept. 29 to reflect the correct spelling of interim OU Law Dean Katheleen Guzman's name.