Tulsa's Emerson Elementary celebrates a century Friday, May 2, 2014

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Emerson Elementary School, north of downtown Tulsa at 909 N. Boston Ave, will celebrate its centennial this Friday night, May 2, 2014, from 6 to 8 pm. Dinner will be provided by Elote and music by Muskogee's Wild Card Band. There will be a silent auction to benefit the school's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) initiative. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children 11-17. Visit Emerson's "purchases and donations" page to buy tickets and centennial T-shirts.

In researching a story about the neighborhood south of Emerson, I've enjoyed talking to a number of alumni who attended the school in the '40s and '50s and getting to know the school's long and fascinating history.

Emerson School dates its birth from its authorization in Tulsa's 1913 school bond issue. A April 14, 1915, story, headlined "BUILD NEW SCHOOL ON THE NORTH SIDE: Buy Block In Kirkpatrick Heights for a Unit Building," reported:

Amicably settling the slight dissention [sic] which recently arose between the North Side Improvement association and the city school board, it was decided at the meeting of the school board last night to purchase a block of ground in the Kirkpatrick Heights addition for a new school site and build an entirely new unit school at that place. In view of the unsafe condition of the Sequoyah school, for a large number of children, it was decided to diminish the attendance there as well as repair the building and render it safe as far as possible.

It is thought probable that the Osage school, which is a grade school, would never likely grow very much, shall be made the location for the manual training and domestic science departments for the more advanced students of the north side. This will prevent their having to go as far south as the central high school or as far east as Washington school to take that course of study. Members of the North Side Improvement association present expressed themselves before the board and privately as being entirely satisfied with the arrangement.

(On the same page, a box score and news story announced that the Tulsa World-Democrat newsboys baseball team, the Newsies, had defeated Bellview (Lincoln) elementary school 7-6 and Horace Mann elementary 10-2 in a Sunday afternoon double header. For more information about the concerns of this period for school building soundness and safety, see "'JITNEY' SCHOOLS ARE 'ALL BLOWED UP'" in the September 8, 1915, Tulsa World.)

A month later, on May 19, 1915, the school board approved, with one member dissenting, the purchase of a block in Kirkpatrick Heights and rejecting the Mary Davis site. (That may be a reference to the Davis-Wilson Heights Addition, on the east side of Cincinnati at the top of Sunset Hill. The same page discusses work on the Detention Home and has an ad from the Tulsa Theatre Managers Association about a wildcat strike by union musicians, stagehands and operators.)

A Sunday, September 19, 1915, news story about the reopening of the school year the following day announces that enrollment for the new school in Kirkpatrick Heights would be held at Osage (Fairview west of Denver) and Sequoyah Schools (Boston and Easton) "A separation of the district will be made, as soon as the building is completed." A January 4, 1916, story reports that Emerson school "will be occupied tomorrow," with only one further school from the last bond issue to be completed (Riverview).

Tulsa Emerson elementary school, original building

NOTE: It appears that the Oklahoma Historical Society had the photo backwards. Based on aerial photos, the auditorium was on King Street, second building east of Boston. When reversed, the photo matches the slope of the land.

Emerson has had two incarnations. Its first was as a campus on the east side of Boston between King and Latimer Streets, occupying about half a block and built according to the "unit plan" devised by school board member H. O. McClure, namesake of a Tulsa park and school. Each unit consisted of two classrooms with its own restrooms and cloakrooms. As enrollment grew, additional units would be built, gradually enclosing an inner courtyard. One two-story building housed the auditorium and school offices. The plan was innovative and received national attention. While many unit plan schools, including Emerson, have been demolished, a few remain, and most have been put to other purposes: Lee School at 21st and Cincinnati, Irving School at 1st and Nogales, Pershing School in Owen Park neighborhood, and Lincoln School at 15th and Peoria. In some cases, like Lincoln and Irving, units were constructed around multistory school buildings.

The courtyard wasn't big enough for baseball; little league games were played several blocks north at Cheyenne Playground.

Tulsa school unit plan conceptual drawing

Prior to school desegregation, Emerson was a school for whites only. After Brown v. Board of Education, starting in 1955, a few African-American children enrolled in the school. Bill Leighty, who was an Emerson student at the time, remembers that the change was uneventful and the new students were welcomed. Over the next 20 years, changing school boundaries and changing residential patterns (influenced in part by the urban renewal demolition of Greenwood and the displacement of its residents) resulted in Emerson becoming a majority African-American school; 87.4% in the 1975-1976 school year.

The second, modern incarnation of Emerson began in 1975, as part of a plan to desegregate schools without forced busing. Tulsa proposed, and the Federal judge accepted, a plan to build a new Emerson School as a magnet, to complement new magnet schools at Carver Middle School and Washington High School. Charles Johnson Elementary, located in the old Washington building in the Greenwood district, and which had been one of the segregated "separate" schools for African-Americans, would be closed and merged into Emerson. Longfellow, at 6th and Peoria, had been closed and merged into Johnson for the 1972-1973, to try to create a balanced student body.

Building this superschool involved the creation of a superblock, demolishing the original buildings and the houses on the rest of its block, the block to the south, and two blocks to the west. Forty-six single-family homes, three duplexes, seven apartment buildings, and a small retail building at 14 E. Latimer (home in in 1957 to Tulsa Nozzle and Valve, in 1967 to the Edge of Night beer joint) were removed. King Street was closed between Cincinnati Ave (now MLKJr Blvd) and Main, and Boston Ave was closed between Jasper Street and Latimer Street.

The new Emerson, which opened its doors in 1976, had a brand new, modern building, innovative curriculum offerings, and highly-credentialed teachers. From a 1977 report to the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights about the desegregation of Tulsa schools:

On April 24, 1975, District Judge Frederick Daugherty issued an order with regard to Emerson Elementary School. The order approved the school districts request to build a new elementary school based on an expansion of the existing Emerson campus. Student assignment changes were made by consolidating the enrollments of Emerson and Johnson Elementary Schools. The court stipulated that the new Emerson must maintain a black enrollment of not more than 50 percent. The school district, expanding on its previous successes at Burroughs Little School, Carver Middle School, and Washington High School, sought voluntary white student enrollment. The court had made it quite clear that, if the voluntary approach did not work, the district would have to take other action to maintain the prescribed racial enrollment in the new school.

The new Emerson Elementary, which opened in September 1976, formed the final link in a complete K-12 alternative school program where students can experience individualized, continuous-progress learning in a racially desegregated environment. The total enrollment of 700, with a 50-50 black-white ratio, consists of approximately 500 neighborhood children and an additional 200 white student volunteers. Children in grades K-3 are located in a special area with ready access to other activity areas. The curriculum emphasizes communication skills and mathematics taught by a team of teachers. Enrichment experiences include music, drama, and creative arts at this level.
Children in grades three through six have three time blocks of 110 minutes each allotted to communication skills, math-science, physical education, and humanities. Additional instruction in music is available on the violin, guitar, and piano beginning at the third-grade level.

Although the main emphasis is on basic skills geared for individualized instruction, the curriculum stresses a humanities program. Children at Emerson have access to a piano laboratory, a potter's wheel, instruction in dance and drama, and a miniature television studio where they can produce their own shows. The curriculum features a creative learning center where children may engage in enrichment experiences in the arts, crafts, plant growing, and creative writing. This component of the curriculum is closely articulated with the exploratory curriculum at Carver Middle School so that Emerson students can continue their entire public school education through similar programs at Carver Middle School and Washington High School.

Today, Emerson is the neighborhood school for a three-square mile area that includes all of downtown within the Inner Dispersal Loop plus an area bounded by the L. L. Tisdale Expressway, Peoria Avenue, Pine Street and 11th Street. It feeds into Central Junior and Senior high schools. At the start of this academic year, Emerson had 311 students and 23 teachers. 95% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. 70% of the students are African-American. Student attendance rate last year was 94%.

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