Hey friend! Welcome back to another post. Today is a special post because I am reviewing an exhibit about the Washington School that my former graduate school advisor, Dr. Laura J. Arata created! It was on display at the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar and the Stillwater Public Library.
The Washington School was the all-Black school for students in Stillwater, Oklahoma for many years. This school served the community in many capacities besides being a school, like hosting a Head Start program, the Stillwater Nursery Center, and the Central Oklahoma Community Action Agency. In total, the Washington School served the community for over 40 years.
*All photos in this post were taken by myself at the Stillwater Museum of History at the Sheerar unless otherwise noted in the caption of the image.
History of Washington School
The Washington School in Stillwater, Oklahoma was named after Booker T. Washington, a famous educator and orator. Booker T. Washington was born in 1856 as an enslaved person. Some of his notable achievements include being a founder of the National Negro Business League, the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and he was an advisor to several presidents. He was well-known for his message of “racial uplift through education, business, and self-determination.” (History – Exhibit Panel) The ideas espoused by Washington were controversial and resonant at the same time.
In 1906, the Booker T. Washington School in Stillwater, Oklahoma opened to serve the Black community with students from first through eighth grade attending school in the wood frame building. If students wished to pursue a high school education they were forced to go to another city like Guthrie, Langston, Norman, Oklahoma City, or Tulsa. By the late 1930s, there was demand for a Black high school in Stillwater. A flood damaged the original school building in 1935 and the community lobbied for building a new, bigger school which would accommodate the older students – keeping them in the community. But not everyone in Stillwater liked this plan and it was met with some resistance.
In 1938, a brick building was constructed for the Washington School which allowed for additional high school level classes. More classrooms, an office space, and a gymnasium was added for the students. The school kitchen was located in the back of the gymnasium. Plus, the school had heat and running water! It is believed some of the funding for this project came from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In addition to a new building, the Washington School also hired a new principal – Lee A. Ward.
A New Principal
Lee A. Ward was the principal of the Washington School and had arrived in Stillwater around 1938 when the new school building was being finished. Ward went to school at Colorado State, taking administration courses.
Ward’s daughter, Pearl graduated from Washington School. Nancy Randolph Davis – the first African American enrollee at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) lived with the Ward family during her first summer of her Master’s Program in Home Economics. Nancy spoke highly of Versie and Ella Pearl in a 2009 oral history interview calling them her “sisters” because they were kind to her while she lived with them. For more information about Nancy Randolph Davis, please see this BLOG POST.
Both, Versie and Ella Pearl graduated from the Washington School. Ella Pearl graduated in 1949. Mrs. Ward was the librarian at Washington School. Under the leadership of Ward, the Washington School continued to grow and get bigger. The building soon needed to be expanded to accommodate the growing student body.
With all this growth, the building had to be updated! Eventually, an auditorium and two new classroom wings were added to the Washington School – one on the East side and one on the West side. There were 8 teachers at the Washington School in Stillwater to teach all of the pupils.
Washington High School had several very good athletic teams which won several football and basketball championships. The official mascot for the Washington High School was the Bears and their school colors were maroon and silver. The Washington letter jackets and uniforms featured an “S” for Stillwater. Below I have included the Washington High School song.
By 1938, Washington had a baseball, basketball, football, and wrestling team. The Washington High School male sports teams soon earned a reputation for their athletic talents. Unfortunately, organized female sports were not around yet… But a few years later, the Washington High School would have a cheerleading squad and a marching band.
The Washington High School football team was really good and the newspaper for Oklahoma A&M (OAMC) began reporting on their games – especially the 1938-1939 season. The football games and practices were held in the empty lot across the street from the school with goal posts made out of plywood boards. But some games were played at Pioneer Field on Friday evenings according to the Daily O’Collegian (OAMC newspaper). Many OAMC students began attending the games for 25 cents and the exhibit panel makes a point to note it was largely White students attending these games in the late-thirties and early-forties because Black students were not allowed to attend OAMC at the time. Additionally, the Washington Team would travel to Chandler (Wildcats), Cushing, Drumright, Enid, Guthrie, Langston (Kappa Alpha Psi), Oklahoma City, Pawhuska, Perry, Stroud, and Wellston for away games against other all-Black teams. The football team won the state championship in 1945, 1947, 1950, and 1956.
Brown v. Board of Education
In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case declared that “separate but equal” was a violation of United States Constitution. This case affected the 113 Black students at the Washington School. The final all-Black graduating class at the Washington High School finished their schooling in 1956. After this, the Washington High School students were integrated into the Stillwater public school system. The elementary and junior high students at Washington School were integrated a year later in 1957. The Washington School would operate for another eleven years before closing their doors to public school students.
Integration was a hard-fought battle. The Better Amendment was introduced into Oklahoma legislation and prevented separate schools from being tax funded by certain areas. Rather, the tax funds would go into a common fund. The governor of Oklahoma believed this would force integration to take place more quickly. Almost 300 schools across the state of Oklahoma integrated in the fifties. Shockingly, the “state of Oklahoma had the separate schools regulation in its School Code until well in to the 1960s.” (Plaque at the Sheerar on the Blackboard Wall)
Washington School is located on a flood plain of Stillwater Creek. Large floods took place in 1935, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1956, and 1957. The worst flooding of the area took place over the span of a decade significantly impacting over 400 members of the Black community. Students from the Washington School helped to survey their community in order to gather information. According to the survey, only 5% of families in the community had sufficient plumbing and indoor toilets in 1943.
The most recent flooding in this low area took place in 2019. Please see the exhibit panel “Flooding” below for images of the water and damage done.
Washington School Exhibit Panels
I’ve included photos of the Washington School Exhibit Panels so you could see them! Please scroll through and look at all of them!
Do you know additional information about the Washington School in Stillwater, Oklahoma? Please contact Dr. Laura Arata at Oklahoma State University, the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar, or the Stillwater Public Library to share. Help preserve this important piece of Stillwater history!
Legacy of Washington School
The Washington School still stands in Stillwater today though the building has suffered some damage, vandalism, and has worn down over time. The good news is the building is still structurally sound! A team of students from the Public History Program and Environmental Engineering Program at Oklahoma State University began surveying the building in Spring 2021. They found major damage in some areas, but there were other areas that were almost perfectly preserved. For example, the domed redwood ceiling in the gym is nearly perfect and some of the original glass is still intact in the four original classrooms at the front of the building. One of the most exciting finds was that the auditorium had not been affected by the recent floodwaters in the area.
The Washington School is one of three remaining all-Black schools that represent the early 20th century. Several people are pushing for the Washington School building to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Washington School building is significant to Oklahoma history and needs to be preserved. Some of the proposed solutions to save the building include mitigating floodwaters, raising the building, or adding additional drainage around the building and in the area. Whatever option is chosen, I hope this building is saved.
Hey friend, I hope you enjoyed learning about the Washington School in Stillwater, Oklahoma. If you know of additional information about the school or know someone who went there – please reach out to Dr. Laura Arata at Oklahoma State University, the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar, or the Stillwater Public Library.
Happy Traveling! I’ll talk to ya soon! 🙂
Visit the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar
702 S. Duncan
Stillwater, OK 74074
Washington Exhibit Resources
Washington School Exhibit Panels
Washington School Exhibit – Bookmark
“Raising Washington” Exhibit – Brochure
Dr. Laura Arata, “Raising Washington: Story of Booker T. Washington School,” Payne County Historical Review, Payne County Historical Society, Volume 44, Issue 1 (February 2022). [Pages 4-21].