Chronicles of Oklahoma

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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 18, No. 1
March, 1940


Page 77

The Tulsa Historical Society of Central High School, Tulsa, was organized in February, 1938, by three class-groups of seniors who had been studying local affairs the preceding semester. They felt that organization would make their work more effective. Some five hundred students have enrolled in the Society. Public interest in local history has been increased through the society's open programs, exhibits and newspaper articles.

The 1939-40 groups are preparing a high school text book analyzing the growth and needs of Tulsa. In this undertaking the members are assured community and newspaper support, and advice and criticism from a group of interested citizens.

Russell Wood, President of Unit I, presiding officer for the day, reminded the assembly that 1939 was notable for many anniversary celebrations; that while all Oklahoma was celebrating the run of 1889, there were many citizens of Tulsa whose ancestors first reached Oklahoma in March of 1839 over the Cherokee "Trail of Tears"; also that on March 25, 1879, the Federal Government had named this locality by opening postal service at Tulsa. He spoke of Tulsa's first postal equipment, secured for the High School collection at the request of the Historical Society; he then introduced Prentiss Owens, President of Unit II, who made the years' presentation to the high school historical collection. Principal Eli C. Foster accepted the gift—a specially bound volume featuring the tribal languages; Sequoyah and his works; and English-Sequoyan versions of the United States-Cherokee Treaty of 1860.

Before introducing the next speaker, the presiding officer explained that since the gift had featured a specimen of the Cherokee language, Bob Troutman would tell about Sequoyah, inventor of that alphabet, and about the Cherokee schools in Northeast Oklahoma. He spoke as follows:

If you were asked to name Oklahoma's most famous person would you think of a mixed blood Indian, Sequoyah, a little lame schoolmaster?

His log cabin is under the shelter of a stone memorial near Sallisaw, Oklahoma. I would venture to say that few of us know much about his picture. It hangs in Central High School's hall facing that of Horace Mann. Fine statues have been made of him. One stands in our national capitol, two in the state of Georgia, one in Tennessee, and one in Arkansas. Many schools are named for him; scientists have named the giant redwood trees of California, the Sequoia.

Page 78

Sequoyah was an inventor and a philosopher. Once asked by an Indian friend why the white man accomplished more than the Indian, he replied: "White men have the talking leaf so what one man discovers, need not be forgotten or discovered all over again." And his friend argued: "But the white man must be superior to us for we have no talking leaf." Sequoyah replied, "Oh, that is not so hard. Why I could make one myself."1

It was twelve years before Sequoyah could make good his boast. He was ridiculed by his friends and by his wife who once even burned all his papers. Afterward he began anew on a different sort of alphabet, using eighty-six characters based on the syllables of the Cherokee language.

Congress in 1825 gave Sequoyah a medal for his accomplishment and promised $500 that he might teach other Indians.2 'The whole Cherokee Nation became an academy for the study of the system.' Sequoyah moved to Arkansas in 1828 with what was known as the Western Cherokees. These people set up district schools with a higher central school where Sequoyah was employed at $400 annually to oversee the teaching of his alphabet. This was even before Horace Mann set up the free public school system of Massachusetts.3

Before 1861 the press at Park Hill printed 13,890,000 pages of books, newspapers and tracts in the Cherokee type.4 After the settlement of the Eastern Cherokees, an act of Council in 1841 provided for a Cherokee Superintendent of Education and eleven public schools supported from the interest paid by the federal government on money due them from the sale of their eastern lands. This number had increased to 120 by 1907 at which time the white and Indian schools were merged.5 Grade teachers were paid $30 per month. There were two terms of five months each with a winter and summer vacation of one month.

In May of 1851 two large brick buildings, located near Tahlequah, were completed for the National Male Seminary and the National Female Seminary. Boarders paid $5 per month to cover food costs. All took turns doing the work. While the United States government later set up agency schools for the Plains Indians, the Cherokees always not only directed but paid the costs of their own schools.

A few of their teachers were white; the majority were Cherokees who had been educated in Eastern colleges. They read books in both English and Cherokee. Courses were also offered in Greek, Latin, French, and German.6 This is less surprising, if we recall that all American colleges of this period were overemphasizing the languages and the classics. The Tahlequah Female Seminary grounds and buildings are now used by the Northeastern State Teachers' College. While many of the wealthy Indian families sent their sons and daughters to eastern universities for graduate work, it is a fact that the Cherokee public schools served their people very well. The same may be said of the schools of the other civilized Indian nations.

Page 79

Bette Major then told about the mission schools as follows:

Into the making of Oklahoma, into the foundations which lie below the present, went the genius of hundreds of missionary teachers whose names we find only in old records.

Samuel Austin Worcester, missionary teacher to the Cherokees, and his daughter, Ann Worcester Robertson, with her daughter, Alice Robertson, who were teachers among the Creeks, stand as symbols of all these others. Well do they deserve places in our Halls of Fame.

The outstanding services which the missions gave seem to fall into three types, corresponding to the needs of the developing territory.

First: The great work of Sequoyah might have been lost except for the translations, preparation of text books, and printing of all kinds that was done in the missions.7 Mrs. Robertson made translations in the Creek language. In an early day the mission-teachers encouraged and advised the native teachers.

Second: After the Civil War, the missions were centers of social service. Orphanages were set up. Housekeeping, farming, and manual arts were taught. The Indians had suffered much from the worst of the whites, but the missionaries set patterns of friendliness and decency for them.

Third: After the coming of the railroads, in the white pioneer period, the missions really started our Tulsa public schools. It is difficult to imagine how white children in Tulsa could otherwise have been schooled, for it was impossible to set up white public schools before the Congressional Act of 1898.8 Few families could afford private tutors.

Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Moravians, and Quakers all had mission boarding schools in Indian Territory but it was to the Presbyterian Board that Tulsa settlers appealed in 1883 for help. The Mission Board put up a building and employed two teachers to teach any pupils who might enroll. Contributions were also made by the settlers. In fourteen years the Mission Board spent $20,000 for Tulsa schools.9

Mrs. Lilah D. Lindsay, a pioneer citizen, was a teacher in that school. Vigorous and alert despite her seventy-eight years, she said:

As I am a member of the Creek nation, my memory of this locality goes back to a time when there was neither postoffice nor railroad here. After completing my education in Ohio I became a teacher under the Presbyterian Mission Board in the Wealaka Indian Boarding School.l0 They transferred me in 1886 to the Tulsa mission school which had been opened two years earlier.

Miss Ida Stephens, a daughter of Spencer Stephens, a noted Cherokee educator, had maintained a small private school here before the mission school was opened. Mrs. S.J. Stonecipher, an experienced teacher from Kansas, had charge of the new school and Miss Stephens remained as her assistant until I took her place in 1886.11

My salary was $40 per quarter and was paid quarterly. Seventy-five students of all ages and grades, some white, some Indian, crowded into a single room of about thirty by forty feet. We used the old double desk

Page 80

with an ink well in the middle. Two big heating stones stood in opposite corners. The water pail and the lunch baskets and children's wraps were kept in a small ante-room. Many a recitation have I heard In that tiny space, for with the louder voices of the older pupils, and the shuffling of feet one could barely make out the answers of my younger pupils. I had the first four grades and heard about sixteen classes a day. Often it was four-thirty before the last ones were over. Children brought their lunches or went home during the noon hour. There were two ten minute recesses.

I taught three years in this building, resigned, rested a year, then became Principal of the Coweta Indian Boarding School under the direction of the Creek National Council, which had many district and boarding schools among our people.

After two years there I returned to my Tulsa home, and was invited by several families to open a private subscription school. This I did, using a new store building which Mr. Lindsay owned. By 1893 the school building, considerably enlarged, came under the direction of a village school committee. I then taught in the public schools, thus in about ten years time having had quite varied teaching experiences in Indian Mission, in white and Indian Mission, in private and in public schools.

It is fifty-three years since I first stepped into a Tulsa school room. I assure you that the contrasts between the schools of that day and this are almost beyond my comprehension.

Charles Allen then discussed the beginning of Tulsa's modern schools:

The turn of the century brought a truly wonderful period to Oklahoma. In 30 years Tulsa grew from a hamlet of about nine hundred to a metropolis of 150,000. This didn't just happen. A group of men planned it. They worked for it. They gave time and money to bring it about. How they did it is illustrated in how our schools came to own the most valuable block of ground in the city.

The Presbyterian Mission Board in 1897 wrote Mr. J. M. Hall that they must close their mission but that they would quit-claim the grounds and buildings for $1,050 for public school purposes. Four men borrowed that amount and held the property as trustees until Tulsa was incorporated and taxes could be levied to pay for it.12

Kendall University, now Tulsa University, was brought from Muskogee by the same energetic, far sighted effort. A tract of prairie land, far to the East of the village was bargained for. A campus and lots were plotted. $100,000 was raised for the University by selling town-lot drawings for $300 each. No one knew in advance where his lot would be, but by giving $300 he'd help bring a university to Tulsa.13

After oil was discovered at Red Fork the city grew so rapidly in different directions all at once that there were nine requests at one time for school buildings. Bond issues couldn't be sold fast enough to keep pace with the demand, so the cost of one building was divided among nine locations and nine one room buildings were erected. In this way Tulsa's famous unit system of school building began.

There has never been a time when Tulsa school rooms were not crowded. Mrs. Lindsay has told you how two teachers worked in one room fifty years ago, but in 1921, before the south half of our Central High building was completed, we again had two teachers and two classes

Page 81

in the same room at the same time. Class number one recited during the first half of the period while class number two studied. Then during the second half of the period class number two recited and class number one studied.14

Mr. H. O. McClure, member of the Tulsa School Board from 1906 to 1922, talked about conditions during that period:

It was in 1906, the year before statehood, that I was elected to our school board. School directors hired teachers largely by guess, for there was very little territorial school supervision. Teaches ran their class rooms as they liked, or as best they could. The average teacher's wage had advanced from the $40 per quarter Mrs. Lindsay has told us about to $400 a year or about 1/5 what it is today. We were proud of the new brick building at Fourth and Boston. It housed several grades and the beginnings of a high school. Other classes met in two smaller buildings, and in various churches, halls, and vacant store rooms.

As school director I saw the population climb from 6,000 to 18,000 in 1910 and to 77,000 in 1920. Oil and war and work for everyone increased revenues so rapidly that money was actually less of a problem than finding workmen to build schoolhouses. And how we built them! There were three brick buildings in 1906; twenty-three in 1921. 24% of the 14,798 enrolled pupils were newscomers to Tulsa in 1921. Of the 600 teachers, 87 had been hired that year.15

Today the Average attendance percentage of boys and girls is about even; then, the girls were far ahead. The compulsory attendance law was difficult to enforce for boys could always earn money and at best they could not legally a held in school beyond the eighth grade. High school classes averaged 23 pupils per teacher in 1921 as contrasted with 35 in 1938, yet the percentage of failures was far higher than it is today.16

Looking back on that strenuous period it seems to me our greatest accomplishment was not in the schoolhouses we built but in the type of school system we established.

There must be supervisors and directors to bring organization into such a suddenly assembled school force but we planned to avoid the deadly inspectional type. Today Tulsa has a national reputation for progressive methods and I feel sure it is because supervisors here have always been fellow-workers with the class-room teachers. Music and art specialists were employed in 1909; manual training and home economics teachers in 1913. In 1915, departments of health and kindergarten were added. One-third of al high school enrollees in 1920 were in Commerce.17

Superintendent H. W. Gowans concluded the review by giving some facts and figures on the growth of property values and schools in Tulsa.18

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