New Civil Rights Museum coming to Oklahoma City 

Members of the Youth Council sit at Katz Diner in 1958. (UCO PROVIDED/OPUBCO Photo).

     Two researchers are working with a team of UCO students to archive historical artifacts as they prepare to open the Clara Luper Freedom Center. The new civil rights museum will be located at the old Mobil station that was home to the NAACP Youth Council, expected to bring an economic and cultural boost to the area of Eastside Oklahoma City. 

     Christina Beatty, project director, and Autumn Brown, professor and researcher, are considering the past to contextualize the present and educate the future. 

     “We really have not had a space that acknowledges and celebrates the history of African Americans in Oklahoma City,” Beatty said. “You know, we’re creating something that has not existed.”

     Beatty sees the Clara Luper Freedom Center as an opportunity “to create a place where people can see themselves and also a place where everyone can learn about the impact that Clara Luper and her students had and that as a city, our place in the civil rights movement is something really for all of us to be proud of.”

     Luper was an activist and a teacher who began the sit-in movement with a class of 6-to-15-year-olds from the NAACP Youth Council. The first sit-in was at Katz Drugstore, 200 W. Main St. in downtown Oklahoma City, a plan first proposed by Clara’s then-six-year-old daughter, Marilyn Luper Hildreth, after a trip to New York and the unsegregated north. She told her mother she wanted to sit down and drink a soda at a lunch counter. From Aug. 19 to 21, 1958, that is exactly what they did. 

     Beatty said the museum’s mission will be keeping the spirit of Luper’s work alive and encouraging critical thinking about her goals and accomplishments, but it could also be good for economic development in the area. 

     “Northeast Oklahoma City has been so disinvested for so long. This is a huge, huge investment, both on the part of the city, as well as our private donors and partners. It is very much a public-private partnership,” Beatty said. 

     In addition to the expected economic boost, there may also be an impact on Oklahoma organizers.

     Brown said the new Freedom Center will “first set a precedent or create a model for how community organizing took place in Oklahoma City in the past.” 

     “What can we learn from our foremothers about how they organized and activated not only themselves but their community to make change?” Brown said. “And so I think that having this cultural institution in the city will essentially revitalize how we organize by providing a model of how it was already done,” she said. 

     As an organizer, activist, teacher, and mother, Luper’s impact is honored by a street named after her in Oklahoma City, the Clara Luper Corridor. 

     “This idea of radical mothering is rooted in radical love. And I think that that’s what we saw with Clara Luper. She loved her students,” Brown said. 

    But there was something else Luper did that showed the power of her ideals.

   “She loved those who hated her,” Brown said. “She loved those who hated her so much that she created this movement that essentially forced them to uphold the values of the Constitution. And she says that a lot, right? She says, ‘I love them. We love them so much that we’re making them do what’s right.’ And so I think that this concept of radical mothering will provide us this, like, framework of how we can approach each other.” 

     Brown said that at a time of the continued pursuit for change, this framework is highly applicable to modern activism. 

     “They’re doing this work, but also how we can approach our quote-unquote oppressor or enemy. And this idea of, like, I love my enemy. And I think that that shows up not only with Clara Luper but that shows up with the nonviolent movement that we saw Martin Luther King lead. And I think that radical mothering is really just another way of framing love and radical love,” Brown said. 

     Anyone who loves can tell you that real love is sometimes tough.

     “Part of the love that she exhibited was rooted in like, here is the expectation, here’s the precedent, and this is the standard I expect you to live up to,” Brown said.

    In community as well as the world at large, there is a kind of love that transcends socio cultural divisions. 

     “Radical love in a community is unconditional. But it’s also like tough love and understanding. It’s like, either you’re gonna shape up or ship out because we have a job to do in the community,” Brown said.

    Brown described one instance where Luper’s total commitment to civil rights in Oklahoma was on full display during a student visit in Nashville, Tennessee, with E. Melvin Porter, who was studying at Vanderbilt University and would go on to become the first Oklahoma City chapter president of the NAACP.   

     “Luper and her students were in Nashville, I believe, and at the time, Melvin was at Vanderbilt University, and he was driving her to her hair appointment. And he was like, ‘Yeah, I have got offers in California and Chicago and all these big cities. 

     “And Clara was completely unimpressed,” Brown said. “She was like, ‘That’s cool. So, maybe one day when you’re in your big office, you know, on the other side of the country, you can bring your kids back to Oklahoma, and show them the walls that you didn’t help break down.”

     “And that level of accountability that she put onto Melvin Porter, at the time, it literally is the reason why he came back to Oklahoma,” Brown said. 

     Porter became the first Black member of the Oklahoma State Senate in 1964.

     Soon, a new generation will have an interactive museum to learn about past stories like these and discover how to continue the work, both in-state and at a national level. 

     “Not only is this history being brought to the forefront,” Brown said. “But this physical space will stand as a place of learning, commemoration, and celebration. This space will move the work forward.” 

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