A Woman to Know: Ada Sipuel Fisher

She considered herself as training the next generation of social engineers. — Bruce Fisher

She considered herself as training the next generation of social engineers. — Bruce Fisher

(image via The Oklahoma Historical Society)

On January 14, 1946, Ada Sipuel applied to the University of Oklahoma College of Law. She was a sterling applicant: high school valedictorian and honor-roll English student at Langston University, her alma mater that didn’t have a law school of its own.

The University of Oklahoma president sent Ada a note in response to her application. Yes, her credentials qualified her for admission, but the Oklahoma state constitution outlawed mixed-race classes. Anyone who allowed Ada to enroll — the university administrators, the president himself and even the white students attending class alongside Ada — would be fined heavily by the state. As a result, he rejected her application for admission.

Four months later — then married and pregnant and just 22 years old — Ada sued the university. The NAACP saw Ada’s situation as a test for desegregation and civil rights leaders rushed to support her case. Her young attorney, Thurgood Marshall, would later go on to serve as Supreme Court Justice.

Despite the support of these leaders, Ada lost her case. She appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which again affirmed the lower court’s ruling, allowing Oklahoma schools to segregate white and black students.

But Marshall and Ada didn’t give up. They took Sipuel v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Okla. all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1948, the court ruled in a 9-0 decision that the state of Oklahoma had to provide a way for Ada to get the law school education she deserved.

The state tried to create some ways around this, even whipping up another law school for black students. Ultimately, Ada forced the university to prove she was receiving an equal education, so in 1949 she was allowed to enroll in the UO College of Law, the school that originally rejected her application.

But Ada didn’t have the law school experience she wanted. Instead, administrators forced her to sit in the back of the classroom, in a chair labeled “colored.” She wasn’t permitted to eat with other white students in the cafeteria and had to sit in a row of roped-off seats at the OU Stadium. When she graduated in 1952 — at the top of her class, of course — she still couldn’t use the bathroom designated for her white classmates.

Ada went on to teach history and chair the university department of social sciences, eventually becoming vice president of student affairs at Langston University. In 1992, the Oklahoma governor appointed her to the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents — even though she’d once been rejected from its law school, she could now direct its governance.

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