No one knows about denied access better than 103 year old teacher, Lola Parker Dean, from Tullahassee, Oklahoma.The prolific African American writer, James Baldwin, best describes Dean’s plight as the Urban Renewal period – “Negro Removal.”
Dean began her formal education in community schools around Tullahassee and Porter. After completing the eighth grade, the highest grade available, she then moved to Muskogee to live with her aunt and uncle to continue her education at the all-black segregated Muskogee Training High School in 1932.
She continued her education at Langston University, where she paid $40 for tuition, graduating with a bachelor of science degree in education. She later earned a master’s degree from Northeastern State University, returning to Wagoner to start a teaching career at Harrison Chapel, a two-room school near her home.
“My first year of teaching, I taught the first 4 grades, which consisted of a class of 15 to 20 black students. I was the primary teacher, and another teacher taught the remaining grades through 8th grade,” Dean said.
Dean described a typical day of school in 1940. “We started out with the Lord’s prayer, an unfortunate loss for our children, the flag salute, and then proceeded with our classes. There were no disciplinary problems. A lot of teachers would have to teach with their doors closed because of the noise, but I didn’t have that problem. I opened my door, and we had my class,” she said.
Dean said she taught at the Harrison Chapel school for 8 years, and later moved to Porter, where she served as the principal at the all black Porter school. When the enrollment dropped, she became responsible for all the grades.
“We had folding doors to separate the two rooms, so I placed my desk in between the two rooms. I cooked dinner which was really lunch. Our meal consisted of pinto beans and corn bread, and I cooked while I taught class,” Dean said.
Dean said she managed her workload by allowing the 8th graders to help with the primary grades. “I had some real good students, and I let them teach the lower grades their arithmetic. I’d arrive at school at 7 a.m., when I had to cook lunch for the children,” she said.
During Dean’s career, she said the community of women would help make clothing for the children, make quilts for those in need, and the men would help with the harvest. “Parents helped me with whatever I needed from cooking lunch to chopping wood. When a child was having difficulty, I would stay overnight at the child’s home to help tutor the struggling student,” Dean said.
By the 1970’s, integration was in full swing, which would change the landscape of education forever, according to Dean.
When integration began to take shape, Dean stated that all the African American teachers were fired, and all the black schools were closed in Muskogee county. As a result, Dean filed a lawsuit, suing the district for her job. She won. Shortly thereafter additional African American teachers were hired at throughout the district.
“My greatest contribution to education is that I taught my kids to study and to do what it took to get them where they wanted to go. Some of them didn’t know how to work, stay up late, and ‘burn the midnight oil’ or to do whatever it took to make it. Hard work never killed anybody; otherwise, I would have been gone a long time ago,” the centurion said.
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