BTW centennial memories

Booker T. Washington High School celebrates 100 years of greatness this fall.



Booker T. Washington High School celebrates its 100th year as it is recognized as Oklahoma’s top public high school.

(page 1 of 3)

One hundred years ago this fall, Booker T. Washington High School was founded to serve the citizens of Tulsa’s black community.

Since then, the school has undergone drastic changes, including several relocations, desegregation in the early 1970s and the transition to become a magnet school.

Today, BTW is an alternative for high school students looking for more challenges, broader curriculum offerings and social enrichment. The Advanced Placement Program and the International Baccalaureate Degree Program are the foundations of the school’s high-level academic offerings.

Athletics also play a key role in BTW’s legacy as the Hornets proudly claim 15 state championships in boys’ basketball and eight in football, as well as state championships in girls’ basketball, boys’ soccer, boys’ swimming, boys’ and girls’ track, wrestling and volleyball.

Considering its rich history and reputation for academic excellence, it’s only fitting that BTW celebrates its 100th year as it is recognized as Oklahoma’s top public high school. It was ranked as such by the U.S. News & World Report’s Best High School Rankings for 2013.

The following is a brief look back at the history of BTW.

The original Booker T. Washington High School was constructed as a four-room building at 507 E. Easton St. in the now-historic Greenwood District and was designed by Leon B. Senter. Opening in fall 1913, the school welcomed 14 students. The teaching staff consisted of two teachers, Lula Sims and Myrtle McKeever.

Ellis Walker Woods, a native of Mississippi who had just moved to Tulsa from Memphis, Tenn., was named the school’s first principal and served until 1948, making his tenure the longest in the school’s 100-year history.

By 1916, the school had grown more than three-fold with 50 students and six teachers.

Also that year, BTW enjoyed its first graduating class with just two students — Bertha Hale and Celey Pecala Wilson.

BTW soon found itself outgrowing its physical facilities. By 1920, a larger, three-story brick building had replaced the original four-room high school on the site. The staff had now grown to 15. At school year’s end, the Class of 1918 graduated seven. 

With the increasing student population, new subjects were added to the curriculum, including public speaking, debate, oratory and music.

Basketball was added to the list of school activities in 1921 and would prove to be a monumental addition to the school’s sports legacy. 

Tragically, 1921 also brought the Tulsa Race Riot, resulting in many deaths and the virtual destruction of the Greenwood area that was home to many black families and black-owned businesses. The building housing BTW was spared, and the school played a key role in the area’s recovery as the American Red Cross set up temporary headquarters to direct and implement relief efforts.

In 1920, a larger, three-story brick building had replaced the original schoolhouse. According to James S. Hirsch in “Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and its Legacy,” an estimated 2,000 people, who were made homeless through the riot’s devastation, were provided temporary shelter in the school building. 

Happier times prevailed in 1922 as BTW added even more activities. Band and football were added and the school crowned a football queen for the first time. That same year, the first school newspaper was printed.

By 1925, the school enrolled 470 students overseen by 21 teachers.

Just about every student during the World War II years helped in the war efforts, with many collecting scrap iron and planting victory gardens.

Clyde Cole became principal in 1948.  Under his leadership, academic and graduation requirements for BTW students would deepen to require two majors and two minors.

Thomas Ousley, Class of 1948, still holds vivid memories of his school days at BTW.

“Our school was not only very athletic-oriented, but we were outstanding in the arts, like drama and theater,” he recalls, noting an annual student talent show called “Hi-Jinks” that featured music, theater and drama. “I was not very good, but I sang in the chorus. It seemed everyone wanted to be in it.”

The students also manned outstanding athletic teams.

“In sports, we were usually so dominant that it was not a matter if we would win, but by how much,” says Ousley, who played basketball under Seymour Williams, the coach for whom the current BTW football stadium is named.

“Coach Williams was a no-nonsense coach,” Ousley says. “His emphasis was on winning, but not at all costs.”

The alumnus recalls that a grade sheet was posted at school every Thursday.

“The rule was simple: If you (aren’t) passing, then you’re not playing that Friday,” he says.

Fridays meant a school assembly, too, for which all the seniors and some underclassmen dressed up — “just like we did for church,” Ousley says.

He remembers many students in his class went on to successful careers, with some becoming doctors, engineers and lawyers, including a U.S. Attorney and a District Judge in Oklahoma City. Ousley himself went on to join the Army in 1948, serving for almost four years.

Following that, he worked for the U.S. Postal Service until his retirement in 1986. 

“We had a well-rounded atmosphere, even though it was a segregated atmosphere,” he says of his BTW days. “We had a great time at a great school.”

In 1951, the school moved to a new building at 1631 E. Woodrow Place.

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