The establishment of schools for children was among the early priorities of settlers in Edmond as they began to build their lives after the land run of 1889. The first schoolhouse in Oklahoma Territory opened in Edmond on September 16, 1889; nearly one year before the first meeting of the Territorial Legislature. The question of mixed or separate schools was addressed in 1890 by the Territorial Legislature, which passed a law that allowed for the establishment of separate schools in any district where the majority of voters in the county were in favor of it. Individual school districts could establish mixed or separate schools, as need and the voters directed. The landmark Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 declared racial segregation of public facilities was legal as long as they were “separate but equal.” The following year, further legislation was passed in Oklahoma Territory that made it illegal for whites and African Americans to attend the same school or to be taught by a person of the other race. This and similar laws throughout the United States was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the landmark decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954.
In its first two decades, Edmond had three schoolhouses for white children and one for African American children. The whites-only schoolhouses consisted of Edmond’s first public schoolhouse built in 1889 that was in use until the Kingsley School (AKA Eastside School) was built in 1901, and the Lowell School (AKA Westside School) built in 1908.
Edmond’s separate school opened in 1892 and was located at 21 West Edwards Street, just west of Broadway. It was approximately ½ mile from the majority school on East Second Street. The first territorial legislature, in 1890, provided for the establishment of a separate school for a minimum of eight students of either race. The predominant population for a district would be enrolled in the majority school, with the separate school being maintained for the minority group. Edmond’s separate school started with 22 African American students. Enrollment was reported at 15 students in 1899, the year that Kingsley school was built to accommodate the 232 white students who attended the majority school house. Victoria Saunders, the last teacher at the Edmond separate school, reported 16 students in December 1903.
Photographs of early separate schools are difficult to find. Although the photo above is one of the few that we have been able to find that was taken in Oklahoma, the exact location is unknown. There are currently no known photos of a separate school in Edmond or the surrounding areas in the collection of the Edmond Historical Society & Museum.
K.S. Smith served as principal and teacher from 1892 until 1895; Smith was followed by a succession of teachers who served for one or two years each. Teacher pay ranged from $25 – $50 per month, as determined by the type of license the teacher possessed and whether or not teachers were also given the title of Principal. This was consistent with the pay received by the teachers at the majority school.
News of the township and surrounding area schools occasionally appeared in the Edmond newspapers during this time. Annual staffing, student progress, and attendance were often reported on. It is notable that the separate school consistently reported a higher percentage of students who were attending school regularly. William Sulcer, who replaced K.S. Smith in 1895, submitted this end-of-term report which appeared in the Edmond Sun-Democrat on April 24, 1896. Many of the students listed in the report above lived on homesteads to the east of Edmond, but had family members who worked in town.
William Sulcer served in many Oklahoma County separate schools. He took over in Edmond as Principal of the Separate School in 1895-6 and called the school “Tuftime.” Sulcer worked with other educators for improved training for African American teachers; their efforts resulted in the establishment of a Normal University at Langston (now Langston University) in 1897.
In 1898, Charles (Charley) D. Clem took over as the teacher at the Edmond Separate School. He was an incredibly effective leader and fundraiser, and also an accomplished poet who published his first work, “Rhymes of a Rhymester,” while living here in Edmond; a fact that even the white citizens in the area celebrated.
In 1903, Caroline Covington had nearly completed her studies at the Edmond Separate school; all that remained was the graduation exam, which was held at a whites-only schoolhouse. When she arrived in the room with the other students, she was met with murmurs, suspicions, and walk-outs. Caroline was then taken to another room to take the exam. However, a member of the school board came and sent her back to the separate school to take the exam. Caroline passed the exam, and she ended up being the first African American student from Edmond to graduate from the school.
In 1904, Victoria Saunders took over as teacher of the Edmond separate school. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the leadership or fundraising abilities of Sulcer or Clem. Saunders struggled to keep the school afloat in the face of a declining population. The Edmond separate school closed in 1905, reportedly due to a lack of available students. The separate school in Edmond was an important cultural center of Edmond’s early African American community. Its closure further showed that there were better opportunities elsewhere in Oklahoma. By 1920, the African American population in Edmond had fallen to zero.