January 12, 1948 – SCOTUS Rules Qualified Black Students in Oklahoma to be Admitted into All-White State Law Schools in Sipuel v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents

Ada Lois Sipuel (later married to Warren Fisher), a Black woman, was born on February 8, 1924 in Chickasha, Oklahoma. She was an excellent student and was her high school valedictorian. She graduated from Langston University in Oklahoma with honors and hoped to become a lawyer. As a site by the Oklahoma Historical Society explains, Blacks were not allowed to attend white state universities such as the University of Oklahoma which had a law school. Instead, Oklahoma actually provided funding for Blacks to go outside the state of Oklahoma and attend law schools and graduate schools that accepted them.

At the urging of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) twenty-one-year-old Fisher agreed to seek admission to the University of Oklahoma’s law school in order to challenge Oklahoma’s segregation laws and achieve her lifelong ambition of becoming a lawyer.

Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher

The president of the University of Oklahoma agreed that Fisher had the necessary credentials, but pointed out that Oklahoma statutes prohibited whites and Blacks from attending classes together. The laws also made it a misdemeanor to instruct or attend classes comprised of mixed races. Had they admitted Fisher, the president would have been fined up to fifty dollars a day, and the white students who attended class with her would have been fined up to twenty dollars a day.

On April 6, 1946, Fisher filed a lawsuit in the Cleveland County District Court, prompting a three-year legal battle. The future U.S. Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, represented Fisher. She lost her case in the county district court and appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. It sustained the ruling of the lower court, finding that the state’s policy of segregating whites and Blacks in education did not violate the United States Constitution.

Fisher then filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. On January 12, 1948, the court ruled per curiam in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (332 U.S. 631) that Oklahoma must provide Fisher with the same opportunities for securing a legal education as it provided to other citizens of Oklahoma:

The State must provide it for her in conformity with the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and provide it as soon as it does for applicants of any other group.”

According to Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, who sat in the gallery and watched Marshall argue the case before the court on January 8, 1948, Marshall was “respectful, forceful and persuasive – so persuasive that on the following Monday – only four days after the argument – the Court unanimously ruled in Sipuel’s favor.”

Fisher shown with lawyer Thurgood Marshall to her right

The case was remanded to the Cleveland County District Court to carry out the ruling.

Following the Supreme Court’s favorable ruling, the Oklahoma Legislature, rather than admit Fisher to the Oklahoma University law school or close the law school to students both Black and white, decided to create a separate law school exclusively for her to attend. As Melvin Hall writes for the Oklahoma Historical Society, the new school, named Langston University School of Law, was thrown together in five days and was set up in the State Capitol’s Senate rooms. It was not be any means “equal.”

On March 15, 1948, Fisher’s lawyers filed a motion in the Cleveland County District Court contending that Langston’s law school did not afford the advantages of a legal education to Blacks substantially equal to the education whites received at OU’s law school. The Cleveland court ruled against her, averring that the two state law schools were “equal.” The Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the finding.

Fisher’s lawyers announced their intention to again appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Oklahoma attorney general knew it was a lost cause to argue equality in front of the same court.

As a result of this concession, on June 18, 1949, more than three years after Fisher first applied for admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law, she was admitted. She enrolled on June 18, 1949, becoming the first African American woman to attend an all white law school in the South.

Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher

It was not a total experience in “equality”: Fisher was forced to sit in the back of the room behind a row of empty seats and a wooden railing with a sign designated “colored.” All of the Black students enrolled at the University of Oklahoma were provided separate eating facilities and restrooms, separate reading sections in the library, and roped-off stadium seats at the football games. These conditions persisted through 1950.

But as Hall contends, the end of segregation in higher education had already begun. In 1948 a group of six Black Oklahomans applied to University of Oklahoma’s graduate schools in disciplines ranging from zoology to social work. All were denied admission under the same statute that denied admission to Fisher. Thurgood Marshall selected one of the six students, George W. McLaurin, to present yet another challenge to segregation in higher education. On June 5, 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, that the restrictions of segregation imposed on McLaurin at OU impaired and inhibited his ability to study.

Meanwhile, in August, 1952 Fisher graduated from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. She earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Oklahoma in 1968. After briefly practicing law in Chickasha, Fisher joined the faculty of Langston University in 1957 and served as chair of the Department of Social Sciences. She retired in December 1987 as assistant vice president for academic affairs. In 1991 the University of Oklahoma awarded Fisher an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

On April 22, 1992, Gov. David Walters appointed Dr. Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, the same school that had once refused to admit her to its College of Law. As the governor said during the ceremony, it was a “completed cycle.” The lady who was once rejected by the university was now a member of its governing board.

In April 1992, Gov. David Walters appointed Fisher to the OU Board of Regents – the very group that had once rejected her. Gov. Walters said during the ceremony it was a “completed cycle.” Via UO College of Law

Fisher died on October 18, 1995. In her honor the University of Oklahoma subsequently dedicated the Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher Garden on the Norman campus. At the bottom of a bronze plaque commemorating Fisher’s contribution to the state of Oklahoma, an inscription reads, “In Psalm 118, the psalmist speaks of how the stone that the builders once rejected becomes the cornerstone.”

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