NAACP's Unsung S/hero: Clara Luper, Civil Rights Activist in Oklahoma City, OK - Joins the Ancestors
bY Gloria Dulan-Wilson
This piece was originally written on February 10, 2011, during Black History Month, in response to an inquiry by the NAACP as to who we considered to be unsung Heroes and Sheroes. I immediately thought of Clara Luper, a former educator who had been the catalyst for many demonstrations and actions against the racists who were then ruining Oklahoma. I just received the sad news that Aunt Clara has now joined the ancestors, and I'm reprinting the article I originally did with a few additional commentaries of my memories of her that have stayed with me over the years. GDW
Hello to My OklahomaHomies and All My Family & Friends:
This is an expanded version of a response that I submitted to the NAACP query on who my Unsung Hero was. I immediately thought of Aunt Clara (Luper). Please do share this with her. I want her to know how grateful I am now and always for having had the privilege of being part of her leadership.
Stay blessed &
THE ARTICLE FOLLOWS:
My Unsung Hero of Black History is...
Clara Luper: Civil Rights Leader and Activist in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Ms. Clara Luper, a former teacher, led us during the days of the Civil Rights Movement, through sit ins and demonstrations during the 50's and 60's in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She was our mentor in the NAACP Youth Council, of which I was a member from the age of 10. She took bus loads of us kids to demonstrate against racists in Oklahoma City, who had segregated restaurants, department stores, etc.
Ms. Luper, now 80+ years old, was the inspiration for so many of us Oklahoma Baby Sooners and Baby Boomers Black in the day. She also worked with Daisy Bates of Arkansas, and helped those families who fled Little Rock to Oklahoma City, settle in our communities.
Up until a few years ago, Ms. Luper (or Aunt Clara, as we affectionately called her) and her son, Calvin (who also grew up in the movement with his mother) had a weekly radio broadcast on Civil Rights and equality, in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma was originally a territory set aside by the U.S. Government for the removal of American Indian, via the infamous Trail of Tears, from lands in the south to what was to be their own territory - “as long as the grass is green and the waters flow.” During the 85+ years of its autonomy, it was illegal for whites to go into the territory. For that reason, many Blacks who were escaping slavery, escaped into Oklahoma Territory; as well as those who originally traveled as "slaves" of the Indians who were removed, and were later given their freedom, or intermarried into the tribes.
Later after the Civil War ended, many other Blacks also emigrated to Oklahoma Territory to escape the retaliation of racist whites. Blacks and Indians either co-existed, or intermarried (in the case of my family, intermarried). Either way we thrived and lived happily, until the Oklahoma Run (Ruin) of 1889, when the territory was opened to racist whites, who came in, took the land, and tried to disenfranchise those Blacks who had been living free and independent for decades.
Oklahoma became a state in 1907, and the racists immediately began to try to reverse all the equality and autonomy enjoyed by the Blacks and Indians who resided there. By the 1950's - thanks to Texas, Missouri, Arkansas - Oklahoma was totally segregated. However, thanks those early Black settlers, we owned our own businesses, homes, schools, and did not really materially need them to establish our own communities.
In the late 1950’s,Clara Luper emerged as one of the leaders in challenging and breaking down racial barriers - though she was by no means the only one - Oklahoma has countless numbers of unsung S/HEROES - she stands out in my mind as a mentor/leader, who fearlessly stood up against the powers that be in Oklahoma City. Aunt Clara taught us to stand for our uniqueness, be proud of our Blackness and the accomplishments of our forebearers and contemporaries.
We were not trying to integrate, however; we were just trying to end segregation. Our education system, neighborhoods, and businesses were superior to theirs. We owned our own homes, had our own businesses , even had our own movie theatres, schools; we studied and celebrated Black (Negro) History as a regular part of our curriculum, from kindergarten through high school - not just once a year in February. We contributed every year to Carter G. Woodson's Institute for the Study of Negro Life and History, and read such Black authors as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, E. Franklin Frazier, Frederick Douglass (for whom our high school was named while he was still living), as well as the white ones.
We only wanted equal access to the mainstream services and jobs, not (dis)integration. We weren't looking to get rid of what we had.
When we went on demonstrations, we were released from our school classes, without being marked absent. We sat in, kneeled in, prayed in, picketed, went limp, were spit on, sprayed on, frozen out, thrown into jail - we did this to re-open gates, not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
We would converge on the area by the busloads after Aunt Clara would give us our instructions as to how to behave, where to line up, how to “comport” ourselves. Marilyn, her daughter, would often serve as her right hand in making sure we all had our marching orders. When I graduated from Douglass Sr. High School, and attended Hampton Institute, in the still segregated south, I took much of what I learned from Aunt Clara with me, and became involved with the local NAACP chapter on the campus, as well as other organizations that were then being formed to stand up for the rights of Black people.
My activist consciousness was largely forged by my interactions with the Lupers, as well as the fact that by and large, most Black Oklahomans had a great deal of pride and autonomy ingrained from our previous freedom before dis-integration.
I wish I had some photos of those days, but there are probably some that can be obtained by contacting the Luper family in Oklahoma City. I only know that as a result of Ms. Luper's mentorship, I have been and am a lifelong activist. I've tried to imbue my children, their peers, and all around me with the lessons I learned as a youth, and throughout my adult life in living in a society that wants to continuously relegate us to second class citizenship.
I was so happy to find, when I went home in 2008 on my way to the Democratic National Convention (prior to President Obama’s nomination for President), that several monuments had been erected in Ms. Luper’s honor. I was also proud to attend the 50th anniversary of the Sit-Ins in Oklahoma City. Many of the people who originally participated attended, and went over the many adventures we had under Aunt Clara’s leadership.
Clara Luper deserves high honor in the pantheon of Black leaders who dedicated and distinguished themselves to our liberation and equality.
STAY BLESSED &
PS: Just spoke with her daughter Marilyn Luper-Hildreth, who informed me that she will be lying in state in the Oklahoma State Capital on Wednesday; there will be a Wake for her on Thursday, and her funeral will be held at the Cobbs Arena in Oklahoma City on Friday, June 17. Truly a homegoing ceremony befitting a dignitary and S/hero of her stature. While I could say Rest In Peace, I know that Aunt Clara won't rest until every last vestige of discrimination and segregation is expunged from our society.