Prior to the historic Brown v. Board of Education (1954) verdict that determined that segregation of schools based on race is unconstitutional, there was another legal victory for Black education that started in Oklahoma! Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher fought all the way to the US Supreme Court after being denied admission to the University of Oklahoma law school based on her race. She was a powerful force that paved the way for Black students across the nation and set a precedent that would be instrumental in the fight for civil rights and equitable access to education.
Travis B. Sipuel and Martha Bell Smith settled in Chickasha, Oklahoma after the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, and began raising their family. Education, like most things in the state of Oklahoma, was strictly segregated based on race and granted students wildly different experiences and opportunities based on race. Ada Sipuel Fisher attended Lincoln School, which was the only Black school in Grady County that employed more than a single teacher, had multiple classrooms, and instructed students through all twelve grades. In 1941, Ada Fisher graduated from Lincoln as the school’s valedictorian.
After graduating from Lincoln in Chickasha, she enrolled at Arkansas A&M for one year and then transferred to Langston University to study English hoping to go to law school. During her time at Langston, she fell in love with Warren Fisher and married him in 1944 and then graduated with honors in 1945.
After graduation, Fisher began looking at prestigious law schools to attend including Howard University and Northwestern University. There were no law schools in the state of Oklahoma that admitted Black students so Fisher looked externally. In September of 1945, Thurgood Marshall spoke at the Oklahoma NAACP convention about a plan to challenge educational segregation. The plan involved a qualified Black student applying to the University of Oklahoma’s law school. Dr. Bullock met with the Fisher family to discuss the plan and determine if Lemuel (Ada Fisher’s older brother) would be the applicant. Lemuel, having had his education disrupted by World War II, declined the offer so that he could attend Howard and complete law school quickly. Ada Fisher was suggested by her family as an alternate because she, like Lemuel, had an excellent academic record. Bullock agreed that Fisher would be an excellent candidate and met with Dunjee to nominate Fisher as a candidate for their plan. This was a high risk decision for Ada Fisher because she had to agree to postpone her legal studies at least until the inevitable court battle over her admission was over and then study in Norman, known for its hostilities towards Black Oklahomans.
In 1946, Fisher applied to the college of law at the University of Oklahoma. OU’s president, George Lynn Cross, stated that Fisher’s application would have warranted her acceptance to the law school but she was denied due to state segregation laws. In April of that year Fisher, with the help of the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall as her lawyer, filed a lawsuit in the Cleveland County District Court. Fisher’s case lost in the county court so they appealed the decision taking the case to the state Supreme Court. In the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Fisher’s case was again rejected so her team appealed the decision and petitioned the US Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found that the state was violating the separate but equal doctrine by not providing any legal education opportunities for its Black residents, and therefore needed to provide Fisher with the same opportunity afforded to white students Hall. The state established a separate law school as a part of Langston University to abide by the ruling. Fisher refused to attend the Langston law school and filed another lawsuit that went up to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the newly created school was not equal to the University of Oklahoma. This appeal was successful which allowed for Fisher to be accepted on June 18, 1959.
“Photo Essay: Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher.” OU College of Law. https://law.ou.edu/alumni/photo-essay-ada-lois-sipuel-fisher.