McKerson, Fields, Gresham, and Blackmon Leave Their Mark on Ardmore

Last week I delved into the local history of the African American community in Ardmore.  During my research I discovered some amazing individuals that put their mark on Ardmore.  One of these individuals was Mazola McKerson.

Born in 1920 in Bluff, Oklahoma, McKerson didn’t move to Ardmore until 1929.  At the age of 26, McKerson began a catering company out of her home in 1946 and just sixteen years later in 1962 she opened and began operating “The Gourmet Restaurant” until 1997 at the age of 77.  In that same year she was also inducted into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame.

As I continued my research I soon discovered that in 1977 she was elected to the Ardmore City Commission which made her the very first female and African American to serve on Ardmore’s city council.  She didn’t stop there however.  McKerson then went on to become the first African American female in the United   States to serve as a mayor of a city of more than 30,000 people.  Not only was this a first here in the United States but it was also a first for Ardmore when she began serving her community of Ardmore in 1979.

McKerson went on to serve as President of the Ladies of Action Club, became the first chair person of the Governor’s Commission on the status of women, and represented Ardmore on the Oklahoma Municipal League Board, and in 1984 she was named Woman of the Year at the Pioneer Woman Museum in Ponca City.

I soon became excited as I continued my research.  There were others as well putting their mark on Ardmore.

Eric Fields was born in 1982 here in Ardmore and has been featured on ESPN fights, trained under the USA Boxing Olympic head coach, and is even rated as one of the top cruiser weights in the world.

Graduating from ArdmoreHigh School in 2001, Fields began boxing just two years later in 2003.  By 2005, he had beaten Tony Grano, the U.S. Amateur Heavyweight Champion and by 2006, Fields turned pro.  Then on July 27, 2007, Fields knocked out 2004 Olympian Ramiro Reducindo and by January 18, 2008, he defeated former IBF cruiserweight champion Kelvin Davis.

Others were soon to follow in leaving their mark on Ardmore, including Jermaine Gresham and Justin Blackmon.

Gresham was born in June 1988 and was a high school standout at wide receiver from ArdmoreHigh School.  Many top college football programs were interested in Gresham, including the Oklahoma Sooners, Nebraska Cornhuskers, USC Trojans, Ohio State Buckeyes, Miami Hurricanes, Oklahoma State Cowboys, and the LSU Tigers.

On February 1, 2006 he signed with the Oklahoma Sooners and by 2010 he was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengal’s.

Blackmon, who was born in January of 1990 in Oceanside, California, attended Ardmore’s PlainviewHigh School and was twice recognized as an All-American.

Blackmon went on to play college football with the Oklahoma State University Cowboys from 2008-11 and while playing for OSU he was awarded the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nations top receiver and was recognized as a consensus first team All-American.  He was also named the 2010 Big 12 offensive player of the year, and was the very first receiver to earn the honor.  By 2012 he was drafted into the NFL to play for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Ardmore has much to be proud of and as you have followed this series in the last few weeks, let us not forget the importance of our past for look how it can brightly shape our future.  Have a great week everyone!

 

Ardmore’s “Black” Theatre and the Silver Lining

Listed on the National Register of Historical Places is what was once known in Ardmore as the “Black” Theatre.

In my most recent column on the African Americans in Oklahoma and their role in this states history, I thought I would bring the series closer to home.  Ardmore has its very own history with the African Americans and their role in Ardmore is just as vital and important.

The theatre was built during a time of racial segregation during 1922 and this comes as no surprise since more than 2000 African Americans resided in Ardmore.  Not only did these residents have their own residential area, they also had their very own business district, including two newspapers.

“The Indian Territory Sun” ran from 1901 until 1907 when its name was changed to “The Ardmore Sun”, and was published until 1911.  The Baptist Rival” was short-lived however, only publishing from 1901-1902.  Both were weekly papers.

Located at 536 E. Main St, the theatre stands as a symbol to the once thriving black business district of Ardmore.  It provided an entertainment for these residents who were shunned and excluded from entering or patronizing the white theatres.

By 1944, just 22 years later, the theater was sold to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The forced closure of the theatre was due to a declining population within their community and sadly it wasn’t recognized for the symbol that it was and is until 40 years after its closure.

On June 22, 1984 it was listed and added to the NRHP (National Register of Historic Places).

Within its listing it is listed as having an architectural style as a commercial style with the roofs material made of asphalt and the wall material as brick.  Both the window and the door material as wood.

Sadly, many of the original black districts and towns in Oklahoma are gone.  Yet, as with every dark cloud, there is always a silver lining.  Many of the towns that do remain still host community reunions, rodeos, Juneteenth celebrations, and economic and educational growth opportunities.

Let us not forget our past, for if we do, we are doomed to repeat it.

The Clarity of Autumn

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Oklahoma Autumn

The season has changed and I could not be more elated for autumn’s annual return.  Even during the hot and dry summer days I could close my eyes and see autumn in all its clarity.  The changing of the green leaves to golden colors and the dance of their musical fall in all their extraordinary colors.

I do not take them for granted, but instead stand in awe at God’s beauty in the smallest of natures rebirths.  I do not fear the change of seasons.  All things must change in order for time and life itself to move forward.  This is the beauty of autumn.

Autumn does not come in slow and does not go out with its head held down, solemn and gray.  It goes out with a bang.  A bang filled with the music of color and the dance of the changing season.  Autumn can teach us so much if you are willing to look past the cliché that we have labeled as autumn.  Autumn is more than pumpkins and gourds.  It is more than campfires and smores.  Autumn is..well..autumn.  It is the definition of change and of death.

Many and most everyone, associate death with gray and black colors and sadness.  Loss, fear, and for some, the unknown.  Death is none of these.  Death is like autumn, it is life.  You are born, you live, and then in your last years you are golden.  You are wise; you are aware of time and know that each day is a blessing.  You can hold onto each day and never take them for granted.  You can become sweeter with age and you can hold each moment in your hands and know the value of each one.  You can be aware of what is important and what is not.  You can shine and show love when in your younger years your pride may have stunted or prevented such love to come from you.

Autumn is the same.  Autumn accepts what has become and will become.  It showers the world with its love in color.  It reminds us that the world can be beautiful, even when our days are short.

If autumn decided to have a human mentality, how would it accept its fate?  Would we see color or black and gray?  Would we smell its sweet aroma or would that be gone and replaced with an odorless smell while the trees became as winter trees?  Bare and lonely.  How lucky are we that God tells us it is ok for change through the song that autumn brings.

Even during the hot and dry summer days I could close my eyes and see autumn in all its clarity.

African Americans Outnumbered Indians and Whites at Statehood

Harriet Tubman was quoted as once saying, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars and change the world.”
In my opinion this quote defines Oklahoma in more than one way. It defines not only its people, but as well as it’s past, present, and future.
The Trail of Tears brought with it not just the tribes who walked it, but as well as their slaves. African Americans walked this same trail and with it they brought their dreams. As time marched on, more arrived in Oklahoma as farmers, settlers, cowboys, and even gunfighters.
By 1863, blacks were fighting alongside the whites during the Battle of Honey Springs on July 17. This battle had secured this region’s major transportation routes through the Arkansas River and the Texas Road. After the Civil War, Congress passed a bill in 1867, providing provisions for the black troops. These troops would later become the 9th and 10th Calvary. The 9th became stationed at Ft. Sill while the 10th was headquartered at Ft. Gibson.
These black soldiers fought against cattle thieves, bandits, Mexican revolutionaries (including Pancho Villa), policed borders during the land run, built Oklahoma forts, and by the late 1800’s had earned the respect of Native Americans for their role in the Indian Wars. To these tribes, these black soldiers became known as Buffalo Soldiers.
During the Reconstruction period, many more blacks would find themselves making their way to Oklahoma. A surge of pamphlets was being distributed all throughout the south. These pamphlets were promising a new beginning and encouraging blacks to make their stake in the land runs in Indian Territory. They were encouraged to create cities and businesses. This would be a new life, a new start, a new dream that could be a reality for so many. It wouldn’t be long before tens of thousands of former slaves made their way to Indian Territory and created up to 27 black towns that would encompass 10 percent of the territories population. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the blacks outnumbered both the first and second generation Europeans as well as the Indians.
It is because of their courage and dreams, they created more all black communities than in the rest of the United States combined and even led many of our nation’s greatest civil rights battles.
Next week, I will delve deeper into this subject and more close to home. We will look into Ardmore’s past and see how this movement affected Ardmore. I hope everyone has a great week! God Bless!

Battle on the Homefront

Rattlesnake

I took this picture in September of 2008 after first moving to Oklahoma. This rattlesnake was sunbathing in my front yard.

Since living in Oklahoma, I have learned to grow a thick skin when it comes to things that crawl, fly, or go bump in the night.  I’ve been trudging through a domestic war on the homefront for nearly five years now.  My very first battle on the homefront was snakes.  Particularly, rattlesnakes.  I soon defeated them with mothballs but soon I was at battle again with tiny scorpions that would appear in my light fixtures or sneak across my floor causing me to go into hysteria, shrieking like a mad woman.  Mothballs were no match for these villains so I brought out the big guns.  They were no match against cats and thankfully no cat was harmed during the onslaught of the scorpions.  Other battles followed with much larger opponents such as coyotes, skunks, very grumpy and naughty squirrels, and a few loud and fussy crows.  I even attacked and won the battle of the giant ant hill this past summer.  Nothing a little carbonated water and a riding mower won’t fix.  However, I have become disheartened as of late.  I believe my strongest opponent has begun to outwit me.

I was walking through my yard one afternoon and noticed small holes everywhere.  Curious as to what caused all these suspicious holes in my yard I began to search for more holes in hopes of figuring out what could be causing it.  For weeks I wandered around the yard and barns with my head looking down to the ground and seemed to be walking in circles.  I was like a mad woman.  I blamed the cats; I blamed the dog, and out of desperation even blamed the mysterious legend of the little people that allegedly lived in and around Durwood.  I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  What sort of animal goes around poking holes in the ground?  The mysterious holes then began to show up in my flower beds and from that point I truly went mad.

I would sit outside for hours waiting for the culprit responsible for destroying my yard.  Then one morning I finally came face to face with my opponent.  As I was making my way outside a sudden movement caught my attention by our shop.  I gasped and then laughed when I saw it.  All this time it had been an armadillo.  He had been digging for grubs and I went to chase after it but it had already run off.

Even though I have yet to figure out how to defeat this armadillo, it has taught me at least one thing.  Cats are lazy and so is my dog.  I hope everyone has a great week!!!  God Bless!

Rosella Hightower; Part Four of the Life of an Oklahoma Legend

If you have been following my recent columns, I have been exploring the life of Durwood, Oklahoma native, Rosella Hightower, who was also of Choctaw descent.

Born in 1920, Hightower would move from Durwood to Kansas City, Missouri, where she went from picking cotton to taking dance lessons which would soon throw her into fame.  By 1962, Hightower had already performed with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the Ballet Theatre (now the famed American Ballet Theatre), the Original Ballet Russe (now known as the Colonel de Basil), and the Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo.

Hightower had become Prima Ballerina and even established the Centre de Danse Classique, now known as l’Ecole Superieure de Danse.  After establishing the school in Cannes, Hightower continued to perform after 1962, and even appeared in film and in television.  Not only was she the principal dancer for the Theatre of the Champs-Elysees, but she also performed in Profile de silence and La Robe de Plumes in 1965.

Returning to Oklahoma in 1967, Hightower took the stage with three other acclaimed Oklahoma ballerinas in the world premier of The Four Moons, which was honoring Oklahoma’s 60th year of statehood.

By 1969, Hightower was directing the Nouveau Ballet Opera de Marseilles until 1972 and in 1973, she chaired the jury of the first Prix de Lausanne.  Ballet students would compete for this annual prize of advanced training, which involved not only Hightower’s established school, but also the Royal Ballet school.

Hightower also went on to direct the Ballet of the grand Theatre of Nancy from 1973-74.  She also staged Nijinska’s production of the Sleeping Beauty in Paris, Marseilles, and Stuttgart.

In 1975, Hightower was made Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, a premier honor in France.

Even though Hightower officially retired in 1977, she didn’t stop.  Hightower was appointed as the artistic director of the Paris Ballet in 1981 and continued to direct until 1983.  She was the first American to be offered this post.

In 1985, she directed the La Scala Ballet of Milan and even assisted in the staging of the updated version of Swan Lake by film director Franco Zeffirelli.  She directed there until 1986.

Hightower soon began to receive many awards and honors, including the Officier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1988, the Officier de l’Ordre National du danse in 1990.

1991 was a big year for Hightower. Choreographer Francois Verret made a documentary entitled Rosella Hightower, and she was also depicted in the mural Flight of Spirit, by Mike Larsen, which is on display in the Great Rotunda of the Oklahoma State Capital.  This was also the year Hightower made her last stage appearance as the lead in an Etienne Frey creation, Harold and Maud.  She was 71 years old.

In 1997, Hightower received the Oklahoma Cultural Treasure Award and has also been honored with a life size bronze statue in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Hightower retired from teaching in 2000 and on November 4, 2008, at the age of 88, Hightower died in her home in Cannes, France after a series of strokes.

Durwood may only be a red dirt road with a few houses scattered here and there, but, it is the birthplace of this great Oklahoma native.  All that remains of Hightower’s presence is a plaque honoring her life and birthplace.  Let us not forget our native Hightower and her Choctaw heritage.