Black History, Oklahoma’s Stories
Bruce Fisher on preserving and sharing perspective on the past
Bruce Fisher was standing in the Oklahoma History Center amid a collection of artifacts he had assembled to highlight the African-American experience in Oklahoma when serendipity offered him the perfect metaphor to explain the importance of his job as the curator of that collection.
“There was an old water fountain with the ‘colored’ and ‘white’ signage in the collection, and two boys were trying to get a drink from it,” Fisher says. “I was watching them, amused by boys trying to drink from a non-working fountain, when one of them said, ‘What color is the water supposed to be?’”
That question – asked through the lens of a childhood devoid of a state-sanctioned “separate but equal” world – lit up Fisher’s mind. “I was struck by two thoughts simultaneously,” he says. “What a long way we’ve come, but also, if we don’t tell the stories, people won’t understand the importance of the artifacts, the experiences.”
Fisher, a Chickasha native, is the son of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, the first Black woman admitted to the University of Oklahoma School of Law – though only after a long legal battle and racist shenanigans by the university administration, including creating a fake law school to admit her as the sole student.
“Growing up, my father worked at the EEOC office at Tinker, so people were always coming by to see him or talking to him on the phone; he was the important one in the house,” Fisher remembers. “I was a sophomore at Langston when I began to realize my mother’s importance.”
He had heard the story of his mother’s admission to the school, but he said she always told the story as if a “legal dream team” was the star of the story. “I took her to Tulsa, and Thurgood Marshall saw us walking up. He said ‘Hello, Sip,’ and I remember thinking they must be good friends, because only a few people called my mother Sip. Prior to that moment, I was more familiar with my mother as the woman, who – if you asked my friends – would have been described as the woman who was very kind and made great popcorn balls.”
A Fulbright-Hays Scholar himself, Fisher absorbed the lessons about the importance of education, and he earned two degrees from historically Black colleges and universities, including a graduate degree in history at Texas Southern University. He worked in fields including organized labor before being invited to become the curator of the multicultural collections at the OHS in 1999. He retired in 2014.
“When I started, the collection was pitifully inadequate,” he says. “To tell stories like this, you need artifacts, and we didn’t have them. There was never a purposeful collection and preservation of Black history in Oklahoma, so I relied on the story to come to me. Most of what I know of the Black history here has come through people who told me the stories.”
He vividly remembers a man calling one day and saying, “I have some Black history for you.” It’s an unusual opening for a phone call, but certainly interest-grabbing. As it turned out, the man’s father, Lisle Prim, had been one of two Grade A dairy farmers in Oklahoma at one time. “I asked Walter, his son, do you have any artifacts?” Fisher says. “He replied, ‘What’s an artifact?’”
Collecting the stories has been filled with moments like this, and the task has not been easy. Take the Second World War, for example: one of Fisher’s key areas of concern was that 1.2 million Black soldiers served in WWII, and none received a Medal of Honor until President Bill Clinton had the issue thrust in front of him by storytellers like Fisher.
“There were no permanent collections of African-American history when I started the job,” Fisher says. “But it’s important for people to know the stories and the names, to know that we participated in the history of this country, so we have the same rights and privileges.”
As for Fisher’s post-retirement, he’s remained busy. He actively worries about missing role models for young African-Americans, and he continues to champion representation. He was instrumental in getting the Capitol Preservation Commission to include depictions of African-American history in the remodel project, including murals of Black Wall Street and the Katz Drug Store sit-in, and statues of civil rights activist Clara Luper and Hannah Atkins, the first African-American woman to serve in the Oklahoma legislature. Now, he’s digging into the history of Black cowboys, outlaws and lawmen, another area where the stories, by and large, haven’t been told. Yet.