'Heartbeat' of Stillwater's Black community could join historic registry
Before desegregation in the mid 1950s, Oklahoma had nearly 100 schools educating Black students, but most of the buildings have disappeared. Now, a group of Oklahoma State University students is working to document the history of Stillwater’s Washington School, and possibly pave the way for the building's future.
Wind chimes ring outside Dorothy Shinault’s home as she searches for the album Mount Zion Baptist Church’s choir recorded in the 1960s.
She sang soprano for the song “Give Yourself to Jesus,” in the church centered in Stillwater’s African American community. And nearly everyone with her in the monochrome picture of the choir on the blue record sleeve also attended Stillwater’s all-Black school, Washington School.
Before desegregation in the mid-1950s, Oklahoma had nearly 100 schools educating Black students. Most of the buildings have disappeared. But a professor and group of university students is working to document the school’s history and possibly pave the way for the future.
Shinault said she remembers moms whose children were in the school’s performances would make costumes.
“It was a fun time,” Shinault said. “We always looked forward to an operetta, so we could dress up.”
The community sat on a floodplain known as “The Bottoms” during legal segregation. This area was made up of a few blocks and when flood water seeped into the town like they did in 2019, homes, churches, businesses and the school were overwhelmed with water.
In this community, Shinault said, people were tight-knit.
“I remember the closeness and the friends I had,” Shinault said. “We were very close. We kind of looked after each other, and the parents in the neighborhood looked after us. And if we did anything wrong when we went to play school, they would tell our parents.”
Named after Booker T. Washington, the redbrick school was built in 1936 on the corner of South Knoblock and 12th Street when the number of African American students outgrew the white-framed house where the original all-Black school was. Then, wings were added in 1951.
It served the community as a domestic violence shelter and housed a Head Start program after public schools were integrated, but they couldn’t keep the water out of the building, so the City of Stillwater sold it.
On the outside, it entrances are boarded, bird nests are packed into parts of the roof’s edge and graffiti covers sections of the building. On the inside, loose wires dangle and ceilings are collapsed. Its varnished wooden gym floor is stripped away, but the redwood ceiling still hovers over the space. Flood damage is in most places except the auditorium, which looks like it did in the 1950s.
Laura Arata, the director of public history at Oklahoma State University, and a group of students are reconstructing its story.
“We can’t honor the history we don’t know about,” Arata said. “And a lot of times with this building, it’s not that people don’t care or wouldn’t find it fascinating or like would want to be involved. They just don’t know. And that’s come up over and over again when speaking with community members.”
The Reverend Calvin Miller, the pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, is also trying to help. Miller said many members of his church attended, graduated, or were involved in its roles after schools integrated.
The school is deeply embedded in the culture of the community, and he said many Stillwater residents might not know about the building’s significance.
“It’s a historical landmark for our community, in special what we call, ‘The Ville,’” Miller said. “There are so many memories, and there’s a few that originally went to the school that are still left. And their offspring and their kids, and their children is still a part of that school.”
When Arata and her students started piecing history together, with the help of the Stillwater Public Library and Sheerar Museum, she discovered this building could be eligible for a National Historic Registry nomination.
“I’ve talked with a couple of elder members of the community in different contexts and I always ask, ‘What do you want to see happen with this building?” Arata said. “And they all are sort of universally are like, ‘You know, I don’t care. It would just be nice if somebody cared and saved it.”
There are multiple ideas of what to do with the building, but no official plans have been made. Reverend John Reed, the pastor of Fairview Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, said he was on the school’s team that won the state’s first integrated Oklahoma High School State Championship in boy’s basketball.
In 1956, Reed was part of Washington's last graduating class.
“Blacks could not buy homes or even rental property anywhere else in Stillwater but that area,” Reed said. “And I think that history needs to be told because that’s the actual history of Stillwater and the actual history of the state of Oklahoma.”
Former Washington students, like Reed and Shinault, attended annual school reunions. For Reed, the school helped reinforce a community and provided people with crucial education.
“I mean, we had some tremendous teachers at Washington School,” Reed said. “And so, that’s the only thing I would love to have talked about, the education we received in spite of the segregated conditions that we lived in. That we had to put up with.”
Just a handful of buildings from the dozens of all-Black schools remain.
After schools were integrated, many of the buildings had other uses for a while, but the maintenance caught up with them. If it’s revitalized, Washington School in Stillwater could end up like Attucks School in Vinita.
Attucks School is one of the dozen properties on the National Historic Registry for its significance in African American education. The Cherokee Nation purchased the building, and it recently reopened as a renovated Boys and Girls Club.