Nearly 40 years after integration turned Booker T. Washington into a model program, the high school's staff, students and alumni look back at a school that has become a Tulsa institution.
Editor’s note: The photos pictured are the work of 11th- and 12th-grade students in Robert Wakeley’s photography class at Booker T. Washington High School.
There is a sort of Dickensian vibe that permeates Booker T. Washington High School.
At the beginning of each new school year, every student, no matter his or her economic background or race, is a sort of “Pip” arriving wide-eyed, eager and full of promise. Over the course of four years, students labor diligently under the Great Expectations of their parents, teachers and, most importantly, themselves, uncovering and nurturing talents and cultivating dreams until they are ready for the leap into post-secondary education. That leap, incidentally, was made by 95 percent of 2008’s senior class.
Which is not surprising. Booker T. Washington is arguably the best public high school in the state of Oklahoma and one of the highest-ranked schools in the nation.
A $25 million facility, rebuilt in 2003 after 50 years of wear and tear to the art-deco-ish predecessor, the school’s floors are polished to a high gloss and small forests of trophies gleam inside glass cabinets. On the wall, pictures of Hornet Hall of Famers are poised to peer down on students, as if to say, “We expect you to do at least as well as we did and ideally better.”
And year after year, class after class, the faculty and students do maintain the school’s reputation for excellence, with “Booker T.” churning out young men and women often headed for top colleges and universities and ultimately into careers in medicine, law, business, engineering, politics, athletics and art, among many others.
“That’s the thing I love most about the school — first and foremost, the students, the community and the pride and tradition and history of Booker T. Washington,” says Principal Micheal Johnson, who is in his second year at the helm of Booker T. A burly, amiable fellow, Johnson exudes a casual, confident air. “There are expectations of excellence here. That’s the environment. We keep the bar high.”
The early years: Unequal, but excellent
These expectations of excellence began nearly a century ago when the school was founded. Named after Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), a former slave who became a revered educator, author and leader of the Tuskegee Institute, the school began educating young blacks in north Tulsa in 1913.
Booker T. served the black community exclusively for the next six decades, reflecting Tulsa’s highly segregated racial reality. Although operating under less-than-equal treatment when it came to resources, teachers and students alike always took pride in the quality of education available at Tulsa’s black high school.
Maxine Horner and Mable Rice attended Booker T. Washington High School and were members of the first graduating class from Booker T.’s second facility in 1951. Since then, both have gone on to become beacons in the community, with Horner serving as a state senator and founder of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, and Rice running various nonprofit organizations.
Horner recalls the excitement of moving into the new building — the auditorium was larger, classrooms were better equipped and there was a swimming pool.
The new facility also meant a new crop of teachers, who, Horner says, continued the expectations of academic excellence that already existed. Rice says she recalls Principal E.W. Woods telling students after every school assembly, “You must be as good as 90 percent of people and better than 10 percent.”
“We always heard that and the teachers saw to it,” she says.
Although education was segregated and Booker T. didn’t always have the same resources as other schools, Horner says students could not use that as an excuse for failing to reach their full potential.
“During the time we were coming to school, I don’t know that there was an individual who could not read,” she says. “One might not have been as smart or swift, but I’ve seen 12th-graders come out of Booker T. that have taken a 12th-grade education and become very successful in employment ... It was just not acceptable to not do well. There was no excuse.”
Julius Pegues, valedictorian of the Hornet class of 1953, studied mechanical engineering in college before enjoying a successful career with McDonnell Douglas, American Airlines and then as a consultant for the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We were underfunded,” he recalls of Booker T. “But there were an adequate number of textbooks. And we had a great group of teachers who were very skilled and imparted the information to us that allowed us to succeed. I expected to go to college, as did many of my classmates.”
Pegues attended the University of Pittsburgh, where he broke the color barriers as the first black basketball player there.
One of Booker T.’s most noteworthy graduates from the segregation era was John Hope Franklin, the late scholar, author and historian, who graduated as valedictorian from the school in 1931.
Franklin was the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University and was a professor of legal history in the Duke Law School and taught at many other universities. He was widely published, with his most well-known work being “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans.” Franklin also served on many national commissions and delegations. President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime’s work in 1995.
Pegues is quick to note that the school produced quality students long before desegregation.
“Booker T. Washington stands as a beacon for education, and it didn’t just start since the school was desegregated,” he says. “It has been an exceptional institution since it began.”
Horner, however, says that today, rather than coming to Booker T. because of its rich and extensive history, students come for the high academic credentials. She says the staff also does not appear to have an understanding of Booker T.’s roots.
“For me, when I go in there, it’s a school that I could say is just a school,” Horner says. “It’s not the school I knew and have been a part of. It’s just another school located in north Tulsa. I don’t see the history of what happened in the past following where it is now. That’s what concerns me is a lapse of the past.”
“They (students) don’t have any idea what came before them, and nobody seems to bridge that gap,” she says. “ … When we talk about what we did in the past to make it possible, they don’t know anything about it.”
The drama of desegregation
The civil rights movement and desegregation brought about Booker T.’s next major milestone, one that continues to shape the school to this day. By the early 1970s, schools were ordered to desegregate and Tulsa officials and parents looked for ways to make the transition as smooth as possible. Their answer? Turn Booker T. into a magnet school by busing in white students from other parts of the city.
Nancy McDonald helped iron out the program that would allow her white children to attend the once all-black school.
“We were looking for the chance to expose our children to different cultures and races,” says McDonald, who, as a volunteer, coordinated recruitment for students at Booker T. that critical first year in 1973 and later became a Tulsa Public Schools administrator. “We had created the environment that we knew would be successful. There was such a positive spirit in this (school) community and we worked hard at creating that. We were really proud of this. It was an achievement for the white and black communities.”
H.J. Green, who, in 1971-73, served as Hale High School principal, was offered a special assignment as Booker T.’s first principal during the desegregation era.
“Voluntary desegregation was a great challenge,” recalls the now deputy superintendent for Tulsa Public Schools. “It took tremendous school and community support to get it off the ground.”
The goal was a 50-50 split of white and black students.
“We achieved that, but we had to overcome a lot of apprehension,” Green says. “Tulsa was a very segregated city.”
For three decades, Booker T. adhered to a 50-50 mix of African-American and Caucasian students. However, a Supreme Court ruling in 2003 struck down racial quotas and the school had to come up with another system for keeping itself racially balanced. Today, Booker T. draws students from geographic “quadrants” of the city. Because Tulsa still remains largely racially divided, at least geographically, administrators have been able to maintain the historic racial balance.
Just busing in white students from other parts of the city was a major undertaking, and for many of them, “that was their first time in that (north) part of town,” Green explains.
Nothing, however, could dampen the spirits that first day of school in September 1973 when the buses from south Tulsa arrived. The moment remains the highlight of Green’s career in education, which has taken him from Tulsa to districts in Long Beach, Calif., and San Diego and back again.
“It was very dramatic,” he recalls. “The media were all there. The African-American students were out front waiting for the buses to welcome them. The level of excitement, exhilaration and expectation was really remarkable.”
One of those white students stepping off the bus that day was McDonald’s daughter, JoElyn Newcomb.
Decades later, she doesn’t clearly recall that moment, but Newcomb certainly was aware of its importance.
“I wanted to go to BTW and I knew the significance in going,” she says. “I cared about doing the right thing.”
One thing Newcomb did notice was a disparity in instruction materials between Booker T. and her previous school, Edison, in south Tulsa.
“I was surprised in chemistry class because there was no stuff — no chemicals, no weights, no microscopes,” she says. “It took a while to get books. Then there was the swimming pool. It was only 20 yards long. If you measure discrimination in resources, then BTW showed signs of it.”
What they lacked in resources was more than made up for by student enthusiasm and faculty determination to create an environment of accomplishment. Newcomb went on to attend Northwestern University in Chicago and eventually worked in Washington, D.C., as executive director for the Democratic Caucus, where she helped write important health care legislation while working for legislative leaders such as Congressmen Dick Gephardt, Tip O’Neill, Tom Foley and Jim Wright.
“I’ve been exceedingly successful career-wise and I attribute much of that to BTW,” she says. “It gave me a vision about what my future could be and what my options were.”
Creating an atmosphere of achievement
Booker T. provides students with a range of academic options designed to stimulate young, bright minds. The school offers just about every Advanced Placement course available and is accredited by the International Baccalaureate Organization. Students who successfully complete the challenging two-year program requirements receive an International Baccalaureate diploma.
Thanks to its rigorous and diverse academic options, the school consistently ranks among the top high schools in the country, according to Newsweek magazine. This year, based on the number of AP and IB tests taken in May and other qualifying factors, Booker T. ranked 74th out of 1,500 high schools nationwide. It’s no secret either that year after year the school turns out the most National Merit semi-finalists of any public Tulsa high school, producing eight in the 2008-2009 school year. The school’s foreign language department also has been a point of distinction, offering eight languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Latin. For students, the academic rigor and diverse courses are a drawing card.
As the school year was set to begin, freshman Jane Eagleton was excited about her first year.
“I like the academics,” she says. “I really want to push and challenge myself and I know this is the place to do it.”
The quality of the teaching staff, which includes four teachers with doctorates and 34 with master’s degrees, helps. Ashli Sims, a 1997 Booker T. graduate who is now a reporter who covers education with KOTV Channel 6, credits a teacher with guiding her toward her eventual career path.
“I’ll never forget that when I walked through the doors at BTW for orientation, I ran into Bill Bland and he told me he saw something special in me and that I should be in speech and debate,” says the Northwestern University School of Journalism graduate. “Through that, I became involved in ‘Tulsa School Life,’ a broadcast in which students deliver the news. That was my first taste of television journalism. I owe my career choice to things that were set in motion while I was at BTW.”
A few of the more well-known graduates of the school include syndicated “Bizarro” cartoonist Dan Piraro, former supermodel Amber Valletta and musician Charlie Wilson (of Gap Band fame). A significant number of local and state legislators, including Jabar Shumate and Horner, also attended.
Now in his 40th year at Booker T., social studies teacher and coach Lyle Moffitt says it takes more than teacher commitment and a diverse curriculum to make a school great.
“It’s up to the students,” he says. “Most of them are here by choice and they are here to excel. They are self-motivated and that makes a big difference. So our job as teachers is to challenge them or they might get bored.”
Boredom doesn’t seem to have been much of a problem through the years, as Booker T.’s top students have captured 14 state academic bowl championships and two national academic bowl championships, including one in 2008. The school’s speech and debate teams have nailed down six state championships since 1979, including an appearance at nationals last year.
The academic arena isn’t the only one in which Booker T. excels. Through the decades, its athletic teams have established a formidable record of achievement that includes almost four dozen state championships. The school holds seven football titles, 13 boys’ basketball titles, seven boys’ soccer titles, four boys’ and eight girls’ track titles, four wrestling titles, two girls’ basketball titles and two boys’ swimming titles.
The school has also turned out its share of top athletes in addition to Julius Pegues, including: Wayman Tisdale, University of Oklahoma basketball legend, Olympic gold medalist and member of the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns; Kenny Monday, three-time All-American wrestler for Oklahoma State University and Olympic gold medalist; Ryan Humphrey, professional basketball player; R.W. McQuarters, OSU football and basketball teams and player for the Detroit Lions and New York Giants; DeMond Parker, standout OU running back; Mark Anderson, University of Alabama and Chicago Bears defensive end; Felix Jones, University of Arkansas running back now playing for the Dallas Cowboys; Granville Liggins, OU football All-American and Canadian Football League star; Reuben Gant, OSU and Buffalo Bills football player; and others.
Going beyond black and white
This mentality of achievement is what Booker T. graduates seem to remember most, and it continues to influence them throughout their lives.
“The school has a championship atmosphere and a culture of pride and hard work,” says Kevin Matthews, former Hornet football and wrestling star and 1978 alum. “Everyone at the school wants to be there and wants to succeed whether it’s sports, academics or the debate team.”
Matthews is passionate when talking about his alma mater. He attributes his education there, and, more importantly, the winning attitude instilled there, for propelling him into his current job as Tulsa’s first African-American administrative fire chief.
“I grew up near the school, but when I finally went there, I realized it was a whole other world with its diversified student population,” he says. “It exposed me to a greater diversity of people and it affected my entire way of viewing the world. Prior to that, my world was segregated, black and white, and my viewpoint was limited. The environment there was so stimulating. It made me believe that I was capable of outstanding things, and I carried that with me the rest of my life.”
After graduating from Booker T. in 1983, Terry Tumey attended UCLA, where he was a three-time all-conference defensive lineman. He later assistant coached the Denver Broncos before moving into an administrative position for the San Francisco 49ers. Today, he is athletic director at Dominican University in San Rafael, Calif.
“At Booker T., they focus on developing you as a whole person,” he says. “It wasn’t about blacks and whites, but about people. They took every Hornet there and invested in each person and now those people have gone out and invested in their jobs and communities. Would I have gotten to where I am today without my experience at BTW? I don’t know that I would have.”
Byron Perry, class of ’88, who serves as president of the Booker T. Washington Alumni Association, says his experience helped him forge lasting friendships with people of other races and backgrounds.
“That’s what it’s about, people of different races and backgrounds coming together to get a quality education in a place where excellence is expected. It’s not about black and white at that point.”
Matt King, a Tulsa architect and 1978 graduate whose daughter also attended the school and whose son is a current student, agrees.
“Race was not an issue for me,” he says. “You realize you don’t judge people by their skin color but by their character. I think one of the best things about the school is that it helps you know people for who they are regardless of race or socio-economic status. I made lifelong friends with people who are white and black. It was a very rewarding experience.”
Ever-present past points to the future
Kevin Burr, Tulsa Public Schools’ area superintendent for high schools, hopes to reproduce Booker T.’s success to turn out college-bound students at other Tulsa high schools.
“Booker T. Washington is a shining jewel for us, and I think the main point is that there is an incredibly high level of expectation there that is really unquestioned among students and faculty. And when you have that, it’s like a marriage made in heaven.”
Burr says he wants to bring similar levels of expectation and success to other Tulsa high schools through various reforms that will allow students to learn in ways that best suit them rather than following traditional instructional models.
“That’s what BTW does well,” he says. “We want to bring that expectation to our other schools so that all our students can have the option of going to college. That’s why we’re looking at how we can adapt the way we teach and structure the curriculum to match with the way students learn.”
Even with its many accolades, Booker T. does face its share of challenges. Because of its status as a magnet school, Booker T. has no dominant population, Assistant Principal Rachael Stacy says, and students have a wide range of needs.
“We have students from the very poorest to the most wealthy, students that are homeless to those that are vastly privileged, students from private middle schools to those from public, (as well as) an extremely diverse population in regards to ethnicity,” she says. “Our counselors and teachers have to work so incredibly hard to make certain that we are meeting the needs of every single child that we serve.
“ … We continually have to build upon the self-confidence of every student that, yes, they can handle the rigor. Our test scores are high due to the diligence of the counselors and teachers, but you can’t imagine the enormity of the pressure to make sure that we stay there.”
Even so, Booker T. has been, and likely will remain, Tulsa’s premier public high school, a place where talented and motivated young students from diverse economic and racial backgrounds strive for excellence.
When a student enters Booker T. for the first time, he or she walks into a world of Great Expectations built on a tradition of academic, athletic and social achievements.
“It’s important to tell this story again every year,” McDonald says, “because you have new students and they need to know and appreciate the history of the school and how that contributes to their future.”
At Booker T., the past is never absent. It’s always there, pushing, prodding and reminding students exactly what is required of them when they enter the school under the watchful, expectant eyes of the school’s namesake, who is depicted in a brickwork relief above the front entrance.
“When you walk through those doors, it’s all there for you,” Perry says. “You can feel the history there, and then you know that success is at hand.”