By Elizabeth Keys
STILLWATER, Okla. —
When Teklyn Jackson-Davis, 18, started visiting universities to make a decision where to attend, she came to Oklahoma State University with her dad, Calvin O. Davis.
A highlight was learning she would be able to live in Davis Hall, a campus residential dormitory named in honor of her grandmother, Nancy Randolph Davis. In 2013, a world of educational choices are open to Teklyn — but these opportunities were not available to her grandmother when she came to visit OSU, known as Oklahoma A&M, in 1949.
“I wanted to learn more about home economics,” said Nancy Randolph Davis, “and, my daddy had heard that the college in Stillwater was one of the best so I came to enroll.”
In the dean’s office, she was told that there were other schools where she might feel more comfortable because “blacks were not ready to go to school with whites.”
Black students were advised to attend college in another state at that time but Davis couldn’t travel a great distance to earn her graduate degree so she decided to enroll at Oklahoma A&M — the first African-American student admitted to the university.
“My Papa planted a seed — the only way for the black man to rise out of oppression was to get an education,” Davis said. “I didn’t know I was a trailblazer. I just wanted to earn a master’s degree in my home state since OSU has one of the most reputable home economics programs in the country.”
Davis’ parents, only one generation removed from slavery, were not formally educated but they instilled high educational values and goals in the family. After enrolling at Oklahoma A&M, the petite school teacher continued going to classes in the summer for four years as she worked full-time teaching home economics at Dunjee High School in the Spencer-Choctaw area during the school year.
As a person of color, Davis was not allowed to live in the college dormitories. Every summer, she lived with the principal of Stillwater’s segregated black school, Lee A. Ward and his family, making a daily walk back and forth each day to the campus from his home.
Jim Crow laws at the time stated she could not sit in the classroom. Davis was forced to sit in the hallway and listen to the professors through the door. After she scored the second highest grade on an exam, her fellow students told teachers that they wanted Davis to sit with them inside the room. Under the students’ pressure and with much trepidation, instructors allowed Davis to move into the classroom with the other students. Everyone had to keep a lookout for any administrators that might see a black person sitting amongst the white students and possibly report the infraction to authorities which would subject the professor to fines. Yet, her classmates reached out to her as they worked together on group projects and offered her rides back home to Sapulpa on the weekends so she could see her family.
“The program complemented my education at Langston and I studied more about food preservation, cooking methods, sewing techniques, human and family relations including child care, and working with the community,” Davis said.
Davis had no financial assistance which required her to pinch pennies and make monumental sacrifices to pay for school. She went to class diligently, completing her master’s degree in 1953.
“I was never afraid — it was a struggle — but it is so worth it to know my granddaughter and others can choose to go anywhere — and live on campus, too,” she said.
Oklahoma State University has not only named a dormitory after her, but has designated Feb. 1 as Nancy Randolph Davis Day to kickoff Black History Month each year. Davis sometimes wonders about her place in history as she said she never thought of herself as a pioneer.
“All I wanted was to get an education,” she said.
Davis graduated from Sapulpa’s Booker T. Washington High School in 1944 and immediately entered the historically black college of Langston University, earning a degree in home economics in 1948.
“I always had high expectations for myself,” she said.
Her daughter, Nancy Lynn Davis, agreed and said she paved the way for generations to succeed without accepting “no” for an answer.
“Mother could have walked out the door and just gone home when OSU advised her to go out-of-state to graduate school but she persevered and enrolled — and that opened the doors for me and generations to come,” said Nancy Lynn Davis who has earned multiple degrees including a law degree like her brother, Calvin Davis.
OSU named Nancy Randolph Davis a Distinguished Alumni in 1999, dedicated the Davis Residential Hall in 2001 and created the Davis Scholarship in her honor. The OSU College of Human Sciences bestowed upon her its inaugural “Enhancing Human Lives Award” in 2009.
The accolades did not come without a struggle.
“Sometimes I was very lonely on campus,” she said. “My strong faith in God, encouragement and support from my family, and community leaders propelled me to persevere.”
Growing up in the era of “separate but equal” which was actually separate and UN-equal, Davis said she was accustomed to sitting in the balcony of movie theaters and going into department stores through the back door.
“My generation knew that this was the law of the land,” she said. “However, we were taught by our teachers in our segregated schools that we still had to have persistence and be insistent about getting our education like Frederick Douglass, SoJourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. I realized that if my ancestors withstood over 200 years of chattel slavery followed by years and decades of degradation, that surely I could do what it takes to get my education — and sitting in the hallway, office nook and back of the classroom was really a small price to pay for myself as well as future generations of African-Americans.”
“I was just a vessel that God used at that time,” Davis said. “I did not feel that anyone should deny me the opportunity to further my education.”
Davis admits she might have been a little naïve because a friend from Langston, Ada Lois Sipuel, had been accepted to the University of Oklahoma Law School so she felt she should be admitted to the state college of her choice which was Oklahoma A&M.
“It was not boldness on my part — and I’m just in awe and humbled by the honors that the university has bestowed upon me,” she said. “I really just want current and future generations of African-American students to pursue their dreams and become the best that they can be.”
Davis worked with young people for more than 43 years, teaching at Dunjee until 1968 and then transferring to Star Spencer High School where she headed up a human relations club as the all-white school integrated before retiring in 1991. With her husband, the late Fred C. Davis, she would garden and share produce with her classes and families in economically strapped eastern Oklahoma County. Within the schools and the community, she influenced the lives of many people. She served as president of the Langston University’s Home Economics Alumni Association for 27 years. For more than 60 years, she has been active as a member of True Vine Baptist Church, known as True Vine Ministries. On the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council, she served as co-adviser to the late civil rights leader Clara Luper.
Her advice to her granddaughter and all students is to “remain focused on their purpose for being at the university.” Davis’ sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, has supported her with their sisterhood all her life and she encourages students to find a group to share joys. But whether her granddaughter decides to become a Cowboy or not, the primary focus should be to get an education, she said.
“Their studies should come first. I would like students to understand how competitive our world is today and that the best remedy to overcome racism as well as other obstacles is to study earnestly and conscientiously,” she said. “A price has been paid by their ancestors and their parents for them to be where they are — do not squander opportunities.”
And most importantly, the 87-year-old said, “Keep your heads up, and hold to God’s unchanging hand! Never give up. When you see injustice — always speak up. If you want to be somebody, you can. If you take one step, God will help you take the second step.”