The history of African Americans in Oklahoma is a story unlike any to be found in the United States. African Americans came to this region as cowboys, settlers, gunfighters, and farmers. By statehood in 1907, they outnumbered both Indians and first- and second-generation Europeans. They created more all-black towns in Oklahoma than in the rest of the country put together, produced some of the country's greatest jazz musicians, and led some of the nation's greatest civil rights battles.
One of the great omissions in the history books was the role African American soldiers played in the Civil War. Blacks first fought alongside whites during the Battle of Honey Springs, an engagement fought on July 17, 1863, on a small battlefield outside present-day Muskogee.
Black troops held the Union's center line in that battle, breaking the Confederate's center and giving the Union a critical win that secured both the Arkansas River and the Texas Road (the region's major transportation routes). This ensured the Union a solid foothold in Indian Territory -- one it never relinquished.
A year after the Civil War ended in 1865, Congress passed a bill providing provisions for black troops, what became the 9th and 10th cavalry. The 10th went on to be headquartered at Fort Gibson; the 9th was stationed at Fort Sill. Black soldiers built Oklahoma forts; fought bandits, cattle thieves, and Mexican revolutionaries (including Pancho Villa); and policed borders during the land runs. They also played a critical role in the Indian Wars of the late 1800s, earning the respect of Native Americans who gave them the name of "Buffalo Solders."
After the Civil War, Freedmen and new African American settlers in Oklahoma could vote, study, and move about with relative freedom. Pamphlets distributed throughout the South urged African Americans to join land runs in Indian
Territory, to create businesses, cities and perhaps even the first black state. Pamphlets promising a black paradise in Oklahoma lured tens of thousands of former slaves from the South. Eventually 27 black towns grew to encompass 10 percent of Indian Territory's population.
Today many of Oklahoma's original black towns and districts are gone, but those that remain still host rodeos, Juneteenth celebrations, and community reunions.
For more information, please visit the Oklahoma Historical Society's web site.
Much of Norman’s African-American history is directly related to our community being home to the University of Oklahoma. Most of the individuals listed here were not only associated with OU but were, and are, also active, contributing members of the Norman community. Links are provided if you would like to learn more about these accomplished individuals.
If you have corrections or additions, please send it to us at
Thanks to Doug Brown, Dr. Sharri L. Coleman, Kay Ham, and Lisa Schmidt for contributing to this compilation.
African Americans in Norman History
Carol Brice Carey
Carol Brice Carey was one of the first African-American classical singers to record extensively. She studied at Juilliard and performed extensively on stage and was the first African American to receive the prestigious Naumburg award recognizing young classical musicians. She performed at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 inauguration and received a Grammy for her recorded performance in Porgy and Bess. Ms. Carey joined the OU faculty in 1974 and along with her husband, Thomas Carey, founded the Cimarron Circuit Opera Company.
Thomas Carey was a world-renowned baritone and Regents Professor of Music at OU. He joined the OU faculty in 1969 after establishing a reputation as an acclaimed baritone during a performing career that included concerts all over the United States and Europe. Recognized as a dedicated teacher who provided the very best in vocal teaching and coaching, Mr. Carey also was a mentor who created with many of his students lasting bonds of friendship and support. While responsible for developing one of the nation’s most outstanding voice studios in higher education, Mr. Carey also was instrumental in developing cultural diversity at OU and helping the University establish Martin Luther King Day celebrations. He and his wife, Carol Brice Carey, were co-founders of the Cimarron Circuit Opera Company and Jazz in June.
Prentice Gautt, Ph.D.
Prentice Gautt, Ph.D., in 1956 became the first African American to play football at the University of Oklahoma and went on to become a respected athletic administrator, first as an assistant commissioner with the Big Eight Conference and then as a special assistant to the commissioner of the Big Twelve Conference. The University’s academic and career services support center for student-athletes is named for Dr. Gautt, the Prentice Gautt Academic Center.
Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher
Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher was the first African-American woman to attend an all-white law school in the South and in 1951 she became the first African-American student to graduate from the University of Oklahoma. She was appointed to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma in 1992, the governing organization that had initially denied her admission to OU based on race.
Melvin Hall, J.D.
Melvin Hall, J.D., has served as member and chairman of the OU Board of Regents and director of the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission. A respected and honored attorney, he is currently an adjunct professor in OU’s African and African American Studies Program, teaching civil rights law, and a member of the OU College of Law Board of Visitors. He has been instrumental in recruiting, mentoring, and developing summer clerkships for minority law students.
George Henderson, Ph.D.
George Henderson, Ph.D., joined the University of Oklahoma faculty in 1967. He and his wife, Barbara Henderson, were the first African-American couple to purchase a home in Norman. Dr. Henderson is the author of 28 books and has served as the Dean of OU’s College of Liberal Studies. In 1969 he founded the Department of Human Relations in which he served as director. Dr. Henderson was the first African-American in the State of Oklahoma to hold an endowed professorship. His name has become synonymous with efforts to promote diversity and interracial understanding.
Anita Hill, J.D.
Anita Hill, J.D., is a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. In 1991 Ms. Hill was a law professor at the University of Oklahoma and called to testify in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings for Mr. Thomas’ appointment to the United States Supreme Court. Public interest in and debate over her testimony is said by some to have launched public awareness of the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. She is the author of Speaking Truth to Power and several academic publications.
Don Johnson and his sister, Etta Johnson
Don Johnson and his sister, Etta Johnson, were the first African-American students to integrate the Norman Public Schools. Etta Johnson started first and attended Norman High School in the fall of 1956 and Don followed shortly afterwards. Don went on to become the first African-American student to graduate from Norman High School, Class of 1959. After attending Central State University in Edmond (now the University of Central Oklahoma) Don returned to Norman to work and then own a small business, Bob’s Seat Cover Shop, which he operated successfully until retiring in April 2007. Etta Johnson lives in Oklahoma City and worked over 30 years with Lucent Technology.
The Honorable David B. Lewis, J.D.
The Honorable David B. Lewis, J.D. is a judge on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, the first African American to serve on the state Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest court in Oklahoma with appellate jurisdiction in criminal cases. He is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma and the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
Pamela McCauley-Bell, Ph.D.
Pamela McCauley-Bell, Ph.D. is currently associate professor of industrial engineering and management systems at the University of Central Florida. She was the first African-American female to earn a doctorate in engineering in the state of Oklahoma. Dr. Bell is also owner and president of Tech-Solutions, Inc., a small business providing technical consulting and research services and in addition publishing several academic articles, she is also the author of Winners Don't Quit: Today They Call Me Doctor.
George W. McLaurin
George W. McLaurin was the first African American to attend the University of Oklahoma. A retired Langston University faculty member, Mr. McLaurin attended classes in the College of Education doctoral program in education in 1950 but was forced to remain physically separated from other students in the classroom, cafeteria and library. His court case pressing for an educational experience equal to other students’ experience was argued in the U.S. Supreme Court and led to a reversal of the “separate but equal” legal standard and was a key case leading to Brown v. Board of Education.
Edward Perkins, D.P.A.
Edward Perkins, D.P.A., is a career diplomat, former Ambassador to the United Nations and U.S. Representative to the United Nations Security Council. Ambassador Perkins has been introduced by President David Boren as “one of the most important diplomats in modern time.” He is Professor Emeritus and former Executive Director of OU’s International Programs Center. His memoirs, Mr. Ambassador: Warrior for Peace, was a finalist for the 2007 Oklahoma Book Awards in non-fiction.
Melvin B. Tolson, Jr., Ph.D.
Melvin B. Tolson, Jr., Ph.D., was OU’s first full-time African-American faculty member and taught French at the University for more than thirty years. He also was one of the founders of what was initially called the Afro-American Student Union, now the Black Student Association. In 2002, the University named the Henderson-Tolson Cultural Center in honor of Dr. Tolson and Dr. George Henderson.
Teresa Ray Turner
Teresa Ray Turner, Assistant Director of Athletic Academic Affairs and Director of Career Development in OU’s Prentice Gautt Academic Center, is one of the first two African-American women to receive athletic scholarships to play basketball at the University of Oklahoma. Ms. Turner is a community leader and long-time member of the City of Norman Human Rights Commission.
Julius Caesar (“J.C.”) Watts, Jr.
Julius Caesar (“J.C.”) Watts, Jr. was the U.S. Representative from Oklahoma in the 1990’s, the state’s first African-American congressman. Mr. Watts attended the University of Oklahoma and played quarterback for the Sooners, graduating in 1981 with a degree in journalism. He formed J.C. Watts companies in 2003 and is the author of What Color is a Conservative? My Life and My Politics.