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Oral History Thurman White Jr.


Thurman White Jr. talks about growing up in northeast Oklahoma City.



Thurman White, Jr. (TW) 


I’m Sheldon Beach (SB), with the Metropolitan Library System. Today is November 19th, 2019. And I am here with; do you want to introduce yourself? 


TW: Yes, Thurman White, Jr.  


SB: And if you wouldn’t mind, could you spell your name for me? 


TW: T-H-U-R-M-A-N, middle initial, V-as in Victory, W-H-I-T-E Junior, J-R (period). 


SB: And when and where were you born? 


TW: I was born May 24th, 1951, at Edwards Memorial Hospital here in Oklahoma City.  


SB: And how did your family get to Oklahoma City? 


TW: Well first of all, I’m sure you’re heard this from others, but Edwards Hospital was important because it was the only hospital where African Americans...doctors, and mothers could deliver babies in a hospital in Oklahoma City, so it was fairly significant. It was built by an African American developer, Mr. Edwards. And so, the Edwards addition that’s around that Grand Boulevard area was also another thing that he built. So that’s a significant hospital, no longer there, of course, but significant hospital. What was the question again? 


SB: Were you a first-generation Oklahoman? Did your family been here for a long time, and do you know how they got to Oklahoma? 


TW: Not a first-generation Oklahoman. So, my mother’s family came from two places: Durant, Mississippi--connected with Choctaw Indians, and came to Eufaula, Oklahoma. So that’s where my mother grew up: Bernice White. My father’s family came from Kentucky. And migrated to Oklahoma City, outside of Oklahoma City in Luther, Oklahoma. So that’s where my dad grew up. And so, on that side of the family, I knew my grandmother Emma White. And her mother--my great grandmother (I’m blanking on her name right now, but it’ll come back to me), and so that’s one of the places, since we’re talking about place, that I remember is my grandmother’s house which was 10 South Clegern Street. I don’t even know if Clegern is still there, because one of the old renewals it used to be--it would be south of Bricktown, and it’s probably some of that area where the Thunder Stadium is now. So that was where my grandmother lived. So, I remember vividly, you know, visiting with her, over the years. 


SB: What was it like visiting your grandmother, like, in that area? 


TW: Well, it was great, you know? As a kid you play, and she had a house, and her mother lived there with her, and also her brothers--two brothers, and then I guess it would have been early urban renewal in the early 60’s, actually that’s the first I heard of urban renewal, because it bought my grandmother’s house--kind of cleaned out that area- and she relocated to an area right off of NE 14th Street. Kinda near where Culbertson School would’ve been. And so, that’s where she lived for another long period of time until once again, urban renewal took that house! And then she ended up living right off of Lincoln Boulvard on 16th Street--200 NE 16th. So, I mean, grandma’s house was always full of love. That’s all I remember: love and good food. 


SB: What are some of the things that anyone that questions it, we ask is: What are some of the smells and sights and sounds and things that you remember, like the smells of your grandma cooking? 


TW: Well yeah, my grandma Emma, was a great cook. My...her sister Hattie Miles lived on NE 10th Street near where Douglass High School, which is where I attended high school, is and so both of them were both great cooks. My aunt Hattie cooked lemon meringue pie and rolls, and so my grandmother made cakes. And so, as a young kid I can remember--one of my most memorable experiences was being able to run your finger across the pan that she was cooking in, and be able to taste the cake, if you will, before it was baked. So that was sweet and good. But you know she was kind of a matriarch; you know most of her brothers lived with her. One was a World War I veteran and so, just love—what I remember most about my grandma.  


SB: You say that, you know, urban renewal moved them around a few times. So obviously you saw, as a kid, some of the changes that were going on in Oklahoma City. What are some of the things that you remember then that are different right now? 


TW: Well, you know my own family, I’ll start there and kind of come back to your question. So, in terms of place. Only child, so my mother, my father and me. Our first home, that I can remember, was in Carverdale, which is right near that Edwards addition. So that’s where: 1168 Windermere Street, which was where I lived, and then we moved to Creston Hills. Which was later on, and that was at 2017 Miramar. So that was on the corner of 20th and Miramar, right down the street from Creston Hills Elementary, which is no longer there. And finally, we ended up, by the time I was in high school, we ended up living on Springlake Drive. And so, I say all that to say that during that time, I attended Dunbar Elementary school which was on NE 7th. So if I think about what urban renewal and things that I saw, you know, as I was mentioning before I started; if you drive up for example I’m here today to visit some schools and really to support a program that is called, “Raising a Reader” that's in several elementary schools that my wife and I were able to make a charitable contribution to, an investment if you will, to see that program… 

-So, I’m staying downtown at a hotel. So, I’m driving out to MLK Elementary School, so I’m going down Lincoln. Or going up Lincoln, I should say. And as I look east, you see all the great medical center complex that’s there. But that used to all be single family homes. And so, when I was in elementary school, I played little league baseball. We’d play it against all the other elementary schools. So, there was Page Elementary School. There was Truman; there was Culbertson; there was Creston Hills. Even though I lived in Creston Hills, I went to Dunbar. So, I played against Creston Hills. So, you know, there was, Garden Oaks was another elementary school. And so, it was a community during that ‘50s and ‘60s period. Segregated. But nonetheless a vibrant, diverse community with all kinds of different income levels, all kinds of different educational levels, so I think that--you know, when you don’t have anything to compare it too, as a kid just is! So, it was a great melting pot, if you will, on the northeast side of town. And so that was some of that diversity, some of that vibrancy you don’t see today. And so, I think urban renewal had its purposes, and you know, you see the freeways. You see the medical center complex, and I’m sure that - I think one of the things that I think about (you know since I haven’t lived in Oklahoma City for close to 50 years) - is the biggest winner the University of Oklahoma. And it’s just that it’s a medical center complex, and you know, who would’ve ever thought that: at that particular time, when I was growing up, that the University of Oklahoma would be the big landowner on the northeast side, at least around that particular area. 


SB: What are some of the buildings and things that you remember seeing there that are not there that kind of bring back memories that you wish were still around. 


TW: Well, you know, the thing that I think about often, not so much buildings. It’s that there were single-family homes. See in Oklahoma City you didn’t have--you know I’ve lived other places. I’ve lived on the East Coast. When I graduated high school, I went to Princeton University. So, I’ve got some experience living in Newark and spent time in New York, Chicago. So, you didn’t have projects in Oklahoma City at that time. So, I won’t say that, surely there were people who may have been getting food stamps. But people lived in single-family homes. And there’s something about the stability of single-family homes and residences. And so, that’s probably what I miss most is that you knew who lived on which street. And so, you had a sense of community, a sense of connection with those people because you kind of knew people and knew peoples’ parents and people’s parents knew you. And so, I was just talking with your colleague about her, that would be her father-in-law, Mr. Francisco, which is my 7th and 8th grade band teacher. I took private clarinet lessons and went to state competitions as one of his students, and you know won some prizes. And I still remember him drilling us on how to place out fingers on the clarinet and how to make your fingers POP! on the clarinet keys. Because he was a very meticulous and serious musician as well as an educator. So, my point is that family lived on a certain street. And so, you know him, and he knew you and your family, and so there was a connectedness that I don’t think you see today as you drive around. So that’s what I miss most. Not necessarily buildings. Although, when I went to FD Moon Junior High School, there was a pretty famous restaurant that was directly across the street from that old building was Butler’s BBQ. So that was a big place. We used to go and get little BBQ sandwiches for a quarter. When I went to John F Kennedy High School the first year was built was probably 1965 or ’66, somewhere around there. This was a big thing for because Robert Kennedy came, and it was dedicated, and we were the first 9th grade class to be at that was is now called FD Moon, was then called John F Kennedy. And so, we used to slip off campus, when we weren’t supposed to. Run over to Otwell’s. I don’t know if that grocery store is still there. Otwell’s may still be there. Which is right on that was then called Eastern, now called Martin Luther King. And right down the street from there. So, there were buildings and places. But 23rd or Eastern, if you will, going from Douglas on 10th all the way to 23rd was a vibrant place. I was trying to remember. Because when I lived on 2017 Miramar, which is not far from the Ellison library here. As a kid, we used to walk up here to 23rd and buy baseball cards. Now I know I’m dating myself now. So, I was trying to remember what was on this corner before the Ellison library, and I couldn’t quite remember. But I will say, my first job, (I was 15 and told them I was 16, so I could work.) Was right across the street at what was called Big Value Grocery Store. So, my first actual job, when I was actually a member of the retail clerks union and I worked there all through high school. It was right across the street on 23rd and Eastern- but it was a vibrant community then. When I say vibrant, I don’t want to just overuse that word. But there were businesses, commerce, people, not so much the feel you get today. 


SB: You say you haven’t lived here for quite some time. So, I guess this probably makes a good time to ask what do you see, when you come back, that you do remember that is still here. 


TW: Well, my high school. I was in the Class of 1968 at Douglass High School, so I stayed in touch with my high school friends. And you know we’ve had class reunions over the years. We just had our 50th reunion in 2018. So, the high schools down there, the remodeled Douglass if you will, is still there. So that’s a landmark. The church that I grew up in: Tabernacle Baptist Church is now on NE 36th. Right off of MLK. And so that’s relocated. That’s there. When I grew up it was all the way down, I guess it was on 3rd. So, it was at another location altogether.  

So, I think that some of the institutions that I grew up with that I knew and loved are still there. But you know, I guess that over the years; changing demographics, what you know is probably most concerning to me- just to be brutally honest-is as I mentioned I’m involved in a program called “Raising a Reader.” It’s a program that facilitates early reading and family engagement around reading. Pre-K through 2nd grade. It’s now at three schools here in Oklahoma City public school district: Martin Luther King; Thelma Reese Parks Elementary; and Willowbrook. And so, one of the things that is probably most concerning, is that the state of public education in Oklahoma, as well as across the country, is just really troubling. And in many ways, the state of public education reflects what we’re talking in terms of place and the impacts of urban renewal. They kind of go hand in hand. And so, if you think about what was a vibrant and very productive public school system in Oklahoma City going back 50 years ago, when I graduated, was probably closer to 100,000 kids is now less than 50,000 kids. So, you have a lot of out-migration, again-changing demographics. Out-migration, impact on private schools. I hate to say it, but it’s true: Public policy decisions that have really defunded, if you will, and under-resourced public anything, but in particular public education. You’ve got teachers that aren’t respected, nor are they compensated adequately. So, I think, you know maybe it was last year or the year before, you had the walkout strike of teachers. And Oklahoma City public school district, they were out at the state capitol. They hadn’t had a raise in years. So, you’ve got high turnover with teachers. You had none of that 50 years ago, when I was in public schools. Because we had kids going to Ivy League schools. We had kids going to all kinds of great universities, including the historically black college, Langston. We had top-flight teachers. We had all kinds of academic programs. We had advanced placement courses at Douglass. I understand now, you don’t even have 100 kids graduating from Douglass. There were 400 in my class. And so, I say all that, to say that you know if you ask me, 50 years ago, fifty years later, would things look in terms of place, but also in terms of people, would things be kind where they are today? When I think about the fact that 100% of the kids that are attending these elementary schools that are involved the Raising a Reader 100% are kind of qualified for federally subsidized lunch which means they come from families that are probably below the poverty line. That’s not to put them down. That’s just a fact that is troubling. 100%? So, poverty is a huge issue not to say that there weren’t people that were poor 50 years ago, because there were. But it was a mix, if you will. That wasn’t concentrated. There were diverse incomes, because you had middle class, or upper-class kids as well and poor kids all together because they were you know, segregated. We couldn’t go certain places. But everybody was together. As a result of that, you saw role models. You saw all kinds of that you don’t necessarily see when you get a concentration of poverty. So that’s probably to say that public schools is the thing that troubles me the most when I come back. 


SB: And you probably touched on it some, with everything you’re saying…. 


TW: I don’t know if this is making any sense… 


SB: No, it is. I’m actually just gonna ask a little more about that. The reason you’re back here today is because you’re with the “Raising a Reader” program. What made you get involved with that? 

TW: Well, it’s very simple: three years ago, I guess 2017. I was recognized by the foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, as one of their Wall of Fame Honorees. A graduate of public schools that has perhaps gone on to accomplish something in life and thinking about that. When I first got that call, I was like, “really, me?” And then I reflected on that, and so if I’ve had any success in life: personal or professional, it’s been because of that foundation and that investment that was made in me in OKC public schools by great teachers, by people who cared, by that community that I was trying to describe earlier. And that ecosystem of people and institutions and encouragement and support. And it was also the time. This was the mid-to-late ‘60s. So, you had the Civil Rights Movement going on. You had a time of kind of global as well as change in the United States. And so, there was a spirit of excellence and a spirit of a sense of accomplishment, and a spirit. I have to tell you; the spirit that we had was that you can do and be anything. And so, that’s the biggest thing I got from Oklahoma City and my upbringing, from my family and from the teachers of that ecosystem was the belief in myself, and the ability to do anything I wanted to do. So, I hadn’t lived in Oklahoma City, as I said, for 50 years. I’m getting recognized by the public schools. So, it kind of forced me to prayerfully reflect and think about, “What it is it that I can do to give back to this community that so nurtured me?” My mom had moved away; my dad had passed away in 1999. My mom had passed away in 2010. So, I thought, “What is it that I can give back?”  

I was on a foundation board which has Silicon Valley Community Foundation which has an affiliate program called “Raising a Reader”. And it’s a national program designed (again) to facilitate a joy for reading and engage parents in reading with their children.  

And so, trying to think about what was it, in addition to that spirit of belief in yourself, what was the one single thing that I can remember? And it was a 3rd grade and 4th grade teacher that I had, Ms. Helen Carter at Dunbar Elementary School. There were about five or six of us in this class who, I guess, had kind of tested well. And so, we had a class within a class. And so, she drilled us for two years. We went to 3rd grade. We went to 4th grade. Then, we went to 6th grade. We skipped a grade. Just six kids. So, Ms. Carter…then I had all kinds of teachers. I think about Ruth Allen. My 7th and 8th grade teacher, who lived down the street from Douglass (H.S.) on NW 7th Street for probably 70 years. Then I think about Thelma Parks, my 12th grade English teacher. But so many teachers that invested in me. So, that was the impetus for me going to Raising a Reader and [saying], “would you be interested in starting a Raising a Reader program in OKC?” And they said, “Yeah. Somebody put up the money.”  

So, I convinced my wife (who’s not from here, who’s from San Francisco) that this is something that we had to do - that I had to do. And she said, “Ok.” And we invested in and kind of seeded the program for three years, and we’re in year two of the Raising a Reader program. So, it was just very simply: trying to give back something to schools, in particularly the schools, in this northeast quarter. Ok? “Cause this is where I grew up. And more importantly, if we can do “Raising a Reader” and do it well in a community and in schools, and with kids and families that have challenges, then it can prove-out and be extended to the rest of the city. So that’s why I’m here. 


SB: I’m going to turn it over to my colleague, Kimberly Francisco(KF), and see if you’ve got a couple questions. But first, I want to ask one more: Do you still know how to play the clarinet? 


TW: You know, I haven’t played in years. I still have my clarinet, though! It’s in my office up on the shelf. I still have it. Now, the time I tried to play (& Mr. Francisco would be so upset)- the time I tried to play it, maybe oh it’s been ten years ago I was disappointed in myself because my embouchure isn’t any good. So, I couldn’t get any sound anymore. I mean the sound I’m used to hearing, which I used to be able to do. I was actually pretty good. I played that clarinet from elementary school through high school. I actually got a band scholarship, got a music scholarship at Oklahoma State. I chose not to take it, but I was pretty good. I had a great teacher, Mr. Francisco; And Mr. Willie Perry, who was the band teacher in high school. But I still have my LeBlanc clarinet, all wood. Those who know clarinets know that’s a pretty good model.  


KF: You’d mentioned growing up at Tabernacle Baptist Church. That’s also my home church. 3rd & Byers (Ave) with Reverend Perry…yes. 


TW: Who my band teacher, that was his...well, depending on which Perry. Ok? His brother was the pastor, but their dad was also the pastor. 


KF: Exactly. 


TW: E.W. Perry.  


KF: E.W. Perry. And E.J. would have been pastor at the point that I was there. So, do you still have any connections at all with Tabernacle and the church. 


TW: Well, when I get back here and it’s on a weekend I try to go there. Or I go to another church where one of my high school friends is assistant minister there, at St. John’s.  


KF: At St. John. You know, it’s interesting though, when you were visiting and talking about driving down Lincoln (Blvd) and that’s another one of those things that has changed dramatically: Where Tabernacle used to sit, Harrison-Walnut Community, and the School of Science and Math it was the old Truman Elementary.  


TW: And Page was right down the street. The old Page. 


KF: Yes. 


TW: I don’t know what they call them now, but that old Page was down the street from the old Tabernacle--3rd and Byers.  


KF: Precisely, because Page sat right there on the edge of Deep Deuce (what we now call Deep Deuce). 


TW: The other thing that I think you lose some sense of - and this is something that is hard to (a lot of people who haven’t lived here) to understand - is the sense of community, but [also} a sense of pride. And I don’t say that in an arrogant sense, but I say that in a sense of a high standard of who you are, your values, your character. So that kind of pride if you will. Those schools--Edmond Page. That was named after someone who was an African American educator and a leader. F. D. Moon: African American educator and a leader. Paul Lawrence Dunbar Elementary School. Ok? Frederick Douglass High School. So, in the 12th grade, he had Black History class taught by another great teacher I had, (who I’m still in touch with) who lives in Chicago, Bill Johnson. So, we had to memorize - he had us memorize different things that I still remember. So, when I call him sometimes, I’ll start to recite Douglass’s speeches: 


        “Those who profess to favor freedom, but deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want the rain without the thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters. Power concedes nothing, without a demand.” 

My only point is that schools that had those names, schools that created a sense of self, and a sense of value, a sense of respect for who you are; that created a certain spirit and a certain drive, and a certain value system if you will that (I don’t know the kids - when we tell those names now - I don’t know if people have the right connection. They don’t kind of understand the full value of that. And what that meant. That meant something at the time. You know when we talk about Douglass High School, we talk about the pride of the East Side. That meant something. We had National Merit Scholars. We had national achievement scholars. So that kind of meant something. You kind of lost a lot of that. 


KF: When you spoke (and I can’t thank you enough for the work that you’re still doing with the public schools) but when you talk about sort of that feeling of (or if there’s a) disappointment you know with where we stand currently. We see the desegregation/integration as progress, but also in some regards in NE OKC you see a demise of the very thing that we knew and held so dear; that sense of community, ability to move elsewhere and those who can’t. Um, as you’re working- I know you interface with the schools isn’t day-to-day. Do you envision- and when you interfacing with children and families- that we will again move back to that within our public school system? And that sense of - because when you were talking about Mrs. Carter, I knew immediately who you were talking about: Helen Randolph Carter. So, you know the connection to Randolph Drug Store…so we had those connections that often I don’t see now for families and children. They can’t connect to place or individual and then that very pride (I attended Carter G. Woodson Elementary, so…) but do you think that where we stand now, when you look at what’s happening within public education, do you think we will get back to a point where Douglass is a preferred school of attendance, and not merely a placement? 


TW: You know, it’s a complex question and I don’t really know the answer. I do know that it is difficult to unscramble the egg. You know? It’s impossible to unscramble the egg. And so, the changes that have occurred, we will never be able to create that period quite again. Because it’s such a unique combination of factors all coalescing at a time. But I do think, in terms of quality of education, in terms of trying to ensure that there is more diversity within the teaching profession. Because I think the key is when the other idea of that era was that you saw teachers who you knew, that were in your community; who looked like you and had the same life experiences that you and your family had had. And so, when they told you, “You could do something,” you believed them. Because they believed in you. And you in turn, believed in them.  


KF: Right. 


TW: And their aspirations for you- and you know, when you think about that word: education. Greek word, or maybe it’s Latin, is educare. Which means to bring out the best. So, they saw things in you that you didn’t even see in yourself. And so, I think one of the challenges you have now, is you have such a disrespect in many places for public education. I’m just focusing on education, for example. And you know what also pains me? Now, I don’t mean this is any partisan or political way. But a state that used to have such pride in its public education system. For example, the foundation for the Oklahoma City Public Schools has a Wall of Fame event every year. And each year they’re inducting honorees; people who have graduated from the public schools of this city. And so, they had some honorees last night. One very distinguished scientist, a couple of [them actually]. One engineer actually, who went to Douglass High School. A scientist - a physicist as well as an attorney (who’s had very deep, very impactful on a national scale careers) One went to Classen. One went to Southeast. But they talked about the quality of public education. So I say that, to say that in the majority community as well as the minority community. There used to be such a pride and a belief in the power and the quality of public education in this state. How is it that this state can do a 180-degree turn, and make public policy decisions that defund public education, when they used to have such a pride in the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, but also in the public schools? So, that has to be driven by some values and some political choices that are really kind of extreme. And really the shift from quality to partisanship ends up really hurting our public schools. And I don’t really know how to deal with that, it’s just my observation. So, can we ever get back to what we used to have? I think so. But it will have to look different in the future. It will have to have a focus on quality. It has to be a focus on diversity and equity and inclusion in the public schools. But also we have to deal with some resource issues, resource allocation. And that is a big challenge that I don’t know that our public policy makers are willing to make those hard choices.  


Now, I don’t know much, but I kind of read about these MAPs for Kids kinds of programs. And I think those are great, because it seems like in Oklahoma City people are willing to (for the common good) pay taxes and try to increase resources that can be devoted to public good- broader public projects. So maybe that will help in some way.          


KF: Thank you so much for your time, and everything that you’re doing with Oklahoma City Public Schools, and your commitment to Oklahoma City, still. 


TW: Well, you know: Once an Okie, always an Okie! 


KF: That’s right, that’s right! Thank you. 


TW: Ok.I hope it made some sense! 

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