Among Edmond’s early-day educators were two African Americans who knew education can lead children to their full potential.
William Sulcer and Charles Douglas Clem realized education opens doors.
The first Territorial Legislature’s “local option” law of 1890 formally ushered in separate schools for black and white school children. In 1892, the Oklahoma County commissioners built a segregated school for black children in Edmond on what is now 21 W. Edwards.
(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two part series about early-day Edwards Street.)
No marker in the community honors the historical site of Tuftime, a school that attracted brilliant faculty.
Clem was an early-day civil rights advocate in Edmond before Oklahoma was a state. He found work as a teacher at Tuftime School after being educated at African Methodist Episcopal Church Industrial College in Greenville, Tenn.
Tuftime School’s doors opened to educate children in September 1892. Within two years, 22 pupils were enrolled. On March 16, 1900, a letter written by Clem was published in The Edmond Sun, thanking Edmond residents for donating the first books of the school’s new library.
“I desire to say to my friends of Edmond and vicinity who so generously assisted me in establishing my school library, that words are inadequate to express my gratitude. What you did cannot be over-estimated nor shall it be soon forgotten,” Clem wrote. “I well know that Edmond, standing as it does in the front rank of educational centers of the West, could not afford to look unfavorably upon any educational effort. But that the people who are supposed to consider a Negro boy, or girl, as intended only for the humbler walks of life, should respond so liberally to the Macedonian cry, shows more plainly than words could possibly express, that you have the progressive ideas, benevolent spirit, and fraternal feeling which will be necessary to meet and master the complicated problems of the 20th century.
“The school library which before consisted of one dictionary, now has 175 volumes, half of which are neatly bound books, covering subjects from Cinderella to Richter’s Chemistry. The others are the leading magazines of the country. For these and your kindly interest in our behalf, in the name of the school, I again thank you.”
‘DESPISE NO ONE’
Two years later, the now-bygone Edmond Enterprise newspaper published one of 25-year-old Clem’s poems urging the acceptance of blacks amongst the races.
Clem would have known that many white people were against educating people of color, former University of Central Oklahoma English Professor Emeritus Paul Lehman, P.h.D. told The Edmond Sun in 1999. Lehman lives in Edmond and is the author of the books, “Demystifying Bigotry” and “Demystifying Bigotry II,” available at Best of Books in Edmond.
The poem and letter are evidence that Clem did not accept the separatist indoctrinations proclaiming that a black person cannot succeed in life, Lehman said. Clem published a volume of his poetry, “Rhymes of a Rhymester,” in 1901.
“THINGS TO REMEMBER”
Don’t frown upon my sable face
Because it’s not ruddy like thine.
Remember that water, though colorless,
Is more precious than sparkling wine.
Don’t look upon this crispy hair
With scornfulness, nor jest.
Remember it was nature that made it thus,
And she knew what was best.
Don’t look at color and caste of hair
As an index set apart,
But look instead at principle,
To read a person’s heart.
Don’t look at man’s exterior,
For true it has been told,
That ’neath fine moss and rugged rock;
Is found the precious gold.
Despise no one, however poor,
Tho’ his clothes be old and worn;
Remember that the Prince of Peace
In poverty was born.
— Charles Douglas Clem
The poem illustrates that a person’s physical and social economic status does not justify viewing them as inherently inferior, Lehman said. The Edmond Enterprise also published a photograph of the educator.
“It shows an extreme amount of courage and to a degree, tenacity on the part of the paper at the time,” Lehman said. “The picture of a ‘Negro poet’ is poignant because it says, ‘We find something of value in this individual and his work.’”
Those who were not like-minded would have taken offense to Clem’s notoriety. Without a doubt, some fought the paper’s effort, Lehman continued. Publishing the 1902 poem by Clem was courageous when the Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan element was spreading across Oklahoma, Lehman said.
“And I am certain Clem was aware of this. So to offer himself as a subject for the paper and to have a picture and a poem included, there was a degree of risk involved both for Clem and for the paper,” Lehman said.
Clem’s brief notoriety in the press showed how a black American living in the midst of a negative environment could remain focused to contribute to society, Lehman said. However, the Edmond Enterprise formed an excuse for Clem’s talent.
“Oklahoma has a Negro poet, and while he is a Negro, as the picture on this page shows, he has white blood in his veins,” stated the Edmond Enterprise on Jan. 23, 1902.
Clem’s grandfather was a wealthy and white Kentucky landowner. This bloodline seemed to help excuse the poet’s local notoriety.
“That’s the qualification. It’s saying, ‘This guy’s tarnished but there’s something good about him. He has white blood running through his veins,’” Lehman said.
Lehman admires Clem’s delicate political balance and poise in a town that had not always been accepting of the black resident.
The Kansas Historical Society notes that Clem, 1875-1934, was a newspaper editor, writer, poet and orator. He later had a decorating business in Chanute, Kan. His middle name is also spelled as Douglass, although Edmond newspapers used Douglas.
FATHER ESCAPED SLAVERY
Clem and his parents moved to what is now Edmond in 1890. They owned a farm on what is now the southeast corner of Coltrane and 33rd Street. A century ago, that address was four miles southeast of the Edmond city limits. Census records cite both parents were literate.
Clem’s father, Henry Clem, had escaped slavery from the Loudin Macklin plantation in Kentucky when the Civil War erupted in 1860. He was only 13.
The Edmond Enterprise noted that Henry was joined by one other male slave and three “white boys” who were looking for a job. They crossed mountains before arriving at the Ohio River. And they escaped the shrill bullets of Confederate guards who shot at them. The foursome enlisted at Cincinnati with the Union army. Henry fought against the Confederacy until the war’s end — but not without risk.
He was captured by the Confederate Calvary after gathering apples with four other fellow soldiers. Henry and the other prisoners were marched down Buttermilk Road in front of the Calvary. But when the enemy soldiers ordered the teenager to deliver a note to a lieutenant in the back of the procession, he escaped and hid in a hollow log until the soldiers passed.
Henry read the note, which urged other Confederate soldiers to “Hurry up, as they were going to hang five niggers,” the newspaper reported. Later, Henry discovered his black compatriots’ lifeless bodies hanged at a crossroad.
After the war, Henry returned to Kentucky to marry his sweetheart, Melvina Robinson. Her mother had been the head female slave at the Warfield Homestead in Lexington.
Melvina’s father was Cassius M. Clay, the “eccentric Kentucky millionaire,” the Edmond Enterprise reported. Clay was a graduate of Yale University. He worked for the abolition of slavery, and was a planter and politician.
SULCER DEDICATED TO PROGRESS
By the mid-1890s, the Association of Negro Teachers in Oklahoma Territory voiced the need for more advanced training for black teachers.
“We took Cynthia Ware to Edmond to enroll her in the teachers’ course in the normal school .... we took her to the registrar; he sent us to the president; the president sent us to the Board of Education; She was not enrolled,” Tuftime’s second principal, William Sulcer, stated in a 1971 Oklahoma City Public Schools manuscript.
News of Oklahoma Territory’s growing civil rights struggle traveled beyond Edmond.
“The colored people of Oklahoma have asked for a separate normal school. The next thing will be a separate Legislature. Two legislatures in Oklahoma. Ye Gods!” The Wichita Eagle was quoted in the April 12, 1895, issue of The Edmond Sun.
Seven days later, The Edmond Sun stated that the “colored question was the all absorbing one” during a meeting with the Territorial School Board of Regents.
By 1897, the Association of Negro Teachers in Oklahoma Territory had influenced the territorial Legislature to provide higher education for black students. The Colored Agricultural and Normal University at Langston was enacted by the Legislature.
Sulcer refused the offer of being appointed the first president of the university in Langston, in favor of Dr. Inman E. Page.
“He refused to be president because of his educational background,” Sulcer’s great-granddaughter, Yvette Curry, told The Edmond Sun in 2005. Sulcer had attended school in Tennessee, Roger Williams University in Nashville, and had completed correspondence studies from schools in Scranton and Boston, according to the late Edmond archivist Lucille Warrick.
Tuftime School was named by Sulcer, who followed K.S. Smith as principal. Sulcer was a pioneer Oklahoma educator and political activist who was instrumental in founding Langston University.
Sulcer was principal of the Edmond Separate School during the 1895-96 school year. Sulcer listed 24 Edmond students attending Tuftime.
“The school closed in good order doing well,” The Edmond Sun quoted Sulcer after the close of the school’s eight-month term.
Sulcer also taught in territorial separate schools in Choctaw, Oklahoma City, and Arcadia.
Sulcer was one of nine teachers present at Tuftime before the county closed the school in 1905. The majority of African Americans in Edmond lived on West Edwards Street before the last resident moved away in 1920, said Paul Lehman’s son Christopher Lehman, a professor of African American Studies at St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minn.
Mounting pressure on the Edwards Street community from Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan tipped a delicate balance of race relations in Edmond. African American residents of Edwards Street moved to towns including Langston, Boley and Oklahoma City, as well as out-of-state.
Powerful forces in Edmond began promoting an aggressively anti-black agenda. Former Mayor Carl Reherman has a 1930s newspaper ad that illustrates racial attitudes of the time. The ad promoted Edmond as a white spot in the universe, Reherman said in a 1999 interview with The Edmond Sun. The ad specifically boasts of 2,800 white citizens and no blacks. And it was a result of the Edmond Chamber of Commerce and home builders trying to attract people to the community, Reherman said.
Meanwhile declining health caused Sulcer to leave Oklahoma City for the climate of Phoenix during the late 1920s and early 1930s. He became active in Arizona politics and was appointed superintendent of the Arizona Legislature.
Sulcer moved to Tulsa during the 1940s to start a new career as a trial juror. His life brought him to visit 49 of the 50 United States, Curry said.
Sulcer’s ancestry stemmed from Zaire and his parents endured slavery in Tennessee. His parents were among the first generation of freed slaves following the Civil War, Curry said.
Sulcer claimed to be born in 1865, the same year the Civil War ended; however, a Tulsa nursing home at the time had records stating he was born in 1869, which would have placed him at 102 years of age at his death in 1971, Curry said.
“Just knowing his blood runs through my veins, I have the ability and admiration to instill that same quality he had in his life into my children,” Curry said.