TAHLEQUAH – The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the impetus for a book written by an emeritus professor of psychology, who felt compelled to share experiences he and other Black Oklahomans have had with racism.
Dr. Harold Aldridge Jr. spoke last week to a crowd at Northeastern State University about his recently published book, “What if the Past was Lost Forever? Then Who Would Pass on What?: Segregation and Desegregation in the Oklahoma Public Schools.” He grew up in Taft, one of 13 all-Black towns still in existence in Oklahoma. Both his parents were school teachers, which influenced his decision to interview educators for his book.
But the inspiration for his research was an experience he had following a commemoration event for King at NSU in 1997, during which Aldridge talked about what segregation and desegregation in Oklahoma was like. The next day at the office, Aldridge met with one of his co-workers, who said she did not remember many of the things Aldridge discussed, like separate restrooms and water fountains.
“And I thought, how can that be? You grew up here in Oklahoma like I did, how did you not see it? But when you’re on the other side of the road of segregation, there’s a lot of things you don’t see. and since I was on the Black side of the rope, there were a lot of things I didn’t know about what went on on the other side,” said Aldridge.”
Aldridge said he thought history was getting away, and people were not having their stories told, so he decided to purchase some recording equipment and interview them himself.
“I started out with my daddy. I said, ‘If I can get past him, I could be pretty good,’” said Aldridge. “I asked him and he held me off for a while. He said, ‘How the hell am I supposed to remember something that happened 60 years ago?’”
Aldridge urged his father start out with his childhood, which he described as “pretty tough.”
“His daddy had abandoned the family, the rest of the kids had gone, and so he was home, share-cropping with his mom,” said Aldridge. “So he dropped out of school for a couple of years, and this is why one person can have some big influence in your life.”
Aldridge described two different instances of people advocating for his father: a stranger getting him to go back to school and a rival school’s coach helping him get into Langston University, when he wasn’t initially recommended. Langston is Oklahoma’s only historically Black university.
“Those two men out of nowhere made a difference in his life, which made a difference in mine,” said Aldridge.
Aldridge began interview other educators and wrote letters explaining what he was doing, asking what they’d be willing to contribute. During interviews, Aldridge said he prompted his interviewees with the question: “When did you first realize that you were independent from somebody else?”
“Then once I had them going in that way, they could follow it on, and all I had to do is kind of keep the chronological order,” he said.
Aldridge said once his interviewees had accessed a memory, their faces would change.
“Rather than being congenial and easy-going, you could see the pain because of what they were having to talk about and talk through,” he said. “There was sometimes when they would even start crying or getting angry, and there were times when I cried.”
Aldridge interviewed educators from various small towns and cities across Oklahoma, including school teacher and activist Clara Luper. Of the 18 people he spoke to, only two are alive today.
“We should have been this long time ago,” he said, emotion welling in his voice. “We lost too many who had stories to tell.”