Generations of Graduates Seek to Reclaim Booker T’s Dying
University of Maryland, The Oklahoma Eagle Journalism Project
They say everyone at Booker T. Washington High School knows the rule: Don’t step on the seal.
The giant, orange-and-black hornet emblem is sacred, said Maisha Cazenave, a 1996 graduate of the legendary high school in North Tulsa. Cazenave remembers the drill.
The seal occupies a prime spot in the middle of the school’s front entrance. Those who walked over it when Cazenave, 44, was a student there could end up in one of two places: in a trash can or on top of a vending machine — courtesy of the resident jocks. It was a matter of respect for a school with a legacy of success, she said.
“Everybody knows. You go to Booker T., you’re gonna be destined for some form of greatness,” Cazenave said in an interview with the Oklahoma Eagle.
Booker T. has always been a source of pride for Black families in Tulsa for more than a century. From its founding in 1913 until its desegregation in 1973, the high school served a student body that was nearly 100% African American. With a cadre of teachers and administrators who were dedicated to helping prepare Black youth enter the world and a corps of students who knew that a solid education was their only ticket to a better life, the school became a centerpiece of learning – and social life – in Tulsa’s close-knit Black community.
The magnet school and desegregation
Then, in 1973, Tulsa Public Schools started its desegregation program.
The TPS District used Booker T. as its model, turning the historically Black institution into a magnet school. Half of the students were Black youth who lived in the surrounding North Tulsa neighborhood. The other half was composed of white students bused from across Tulsa.
But today the proportion of African American students there has declined to 27.4%, while white students make up 34.7%, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Admissions requirements have made the school inaccessible for many children living in the nearby Black neighborhood, causing concern for Black families who have been a part of the history at Booker T and throughout North Tulsa.
“I’ll be honest, it’s almost like a slap in the face,” Cazenave said.
Four generations of Cazenave’s family have attended Booker T. Her grandmother, late mother Carol Watson ‘61, and daughter Cydney Knotts, 2018, are also alumni of the school.
Booker T. Washington High School has a storied history, known for both its rigorous curriculum and its successful sports program. They have graduated countless alumni who have had successful careers throughout America’s history.
Some notable alumni have been John Hope Franklin, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and one of America’s preeminent historians; Dr. Julia Reed Hare, founder of The Black Think Tank and one of the country’s foremost authorities on the Black family; Emmit McHenry, who developed the computer code that now allows us to surf the internet; Maxine Cissel-Horner, one of the first African American women to serve in the Oklahoma State Senate; jazz musician and NBA veteran Wayman Tisdale; the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett.
These alums exemplify the school’s tradition of academic and athletic excellence.
School rose from humble start
Booker T. had humble beginnings, opening in 1913 as a four-room building on East Easton Street with just 14 students, two teachers and famed principal E. W. Woods in the heart of the Greenwood neighborhood. By 1920, the growing population in North Tulsa later spurred the construction of a three-story school on the same lot.
The American Red Cross used Booker T.’s building as its headquarters for relief activities following the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that obliterated the community. An angry mod of white rioters left the school untouched after destroying the majority of the prosperous businesses of the famed Black Wall Street business district. The vigilantes killed an estimated 300 Black people, many of them shot during the violence that took place between May 31 and June 1. More than 1,200 homes destroyed.
In 1950, Booker T. moved to a third location two miles away to East Woodrow Place. A fourth building was dedicated on its 90th anniversary in 2003.
But the school almost closed 30 years before the newest building could open, community volunteer Nancy McDonald told the Oklahoma Eagle.
Tulsa public schools would remain segregated until the early 1970s, when it was legally forced to integrate after a then-young lawyer, James O. Goodwin – our publisher – initiated the first desegregation lawsuit in the city of Tulsa resulting in school de
Some school board members wanted Booker T. to shut down, McDonald recalled. The magnet school idea was a compromise.
The 50/50 race divide
“You have to be very grateful to the leaders in the Black community and the Black ministers who recognized that this had to work to keep Booker T. open,” McDonald said.
McDonald, 85, was in charge of recruiting white students to Booker T. The late North Tulsa community icon Julius Pegues, a Booker T graduate in the class of 1953, recruited Black students.
Initially, the Board of Education wanted white students to hold a 60% majority. It was typical for the time, McDonald explained, though she found it strange.
Pegues had other plans.
“Julius Pegues stood up at the school board meeting. I’ll never forget it,” McDonald remembers. “And he said, ‘We’re not going to endorse this plan unless you go 50% white and 50% Black.’”
The board allowed Pegues’ plan to move forward. And the pair successfully recruited an even mix of Black and white students after heavy campaigning, McDonald said.
“The rest was history,” she said.
Since 2009, Booker T. has earned two National Blue Ribbons, which recognizes public and private schools based on their overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. It hosts one of two International Baccalaureate programs in Oklahoma and boasts 91 state championships among its 20 athletic teams and 14 academic state championships.
On its website, the school also advertises a “racially-balanced student body” and says it “continues to thrive based on the twin ideals of promoting excellence and acceptance of diversity.”
But some alumni and community members are disappointed with the historically Black school’s current demographic makeup.
Cazenave’s mother, Carol Watson, graduated from Booker T. in 1961 when the student body was still all Black. Her class was the first to finish at the third site, in the Woodrow Place building. Watson was interviewed before she died on April 30 at age 78.
Watson said she had few options to choose from for school due to her race. But she was proud to attend Booker T. Teachers at the school cared about the welfare of their students, something she said was lost through generations, she explained.
“It was more like just a big family, actually. Back in those times, everybody knew your mom,” she said.
Watson said she did not support the magnet school concept from the beginning, because it forced some of the Black children near Booker T. to make long commutes on buses to schools further away from their neighborhoods.
The grandmother said she wished the Black students could have a preference for attending schools in their own community.
Pushing back against name change
Watson also said she did not like it when people tried to omit Booker T. Washington from the school’s name. Some call it Tulsa Washington. She viewed shortened named as an attempt to rewrite history.
“Booker T. Washington will always be Booker T. Washington,” she said. “It’s not going to be Washington, because Washington was not the name of the school.”
Tulsa’s Booker T. remains one of the first schools in the United States to be named after the legendary educator and author.
Cazenave said she shared her mother’s pride in the school. She remembers the lyrics to the school song and creed, and she still recites them at Booker T. events.
Cazenave said she also feels strongly about the importance of including the name Booker T. in the school title. Namesake Booker T. Washington was an educator who worked for the advancement of his fellow African American people.
Without including the first name, it has been mistaken to be named after the nation’s first president, George Washington, Cazenave said.
“The school was built on the backs of people who were coming out of slavery, like, and this is all they had, but they turned it into something great,” she said. “And not just for Black students but for every student.”
The first woman in her family to attend the high school after its desegregation, Cazenave said she thrived at Booker T. with a diverse group of friends. She learned Chinese and joined the school’s band.
Cazenave also did office work at an oil refinery for one of her classes, though it was not a good fit, she said. Today she works for the Community Action Project of Tulsa County Inc., an anti-poverty agency that works to interrupt the cycle of poverty through early education services, its website shows.
During the year Cazenave graduated, 1996, African American students made up nearly 48.5% of the Booker T. student body, while white students made up 45.7%, NCES data shows.
Cazenave said things at Booker T. felt different by the time she was a parent. The demographics changed. Her daughter, Cydney Knotts, experienced racism while attending the school, she said.
Knotts, a 2018 graduate, said the academic side of Booker T. lived up to its strong reputation.
‘You’re gonna apply to Booker T.?’
For Knotts, 22, the importance of Booker T. was undeniable when she was growing up.
“It’s not even really a question where you’re going to high school. It’s kind of just ‘Well yeah, you’re gonna apply to Booker T.?’” she said.
But Knotts, who was class president and later co-president during her senior year, said the school environment was not everything she hoped it would be.
Knotts said a group of classmates used racial slurs, and some suggested holding a White Lives Matter pep rally just weeks after a Black Lives Matter protest.
“When you were there with people who don’t respect you as a person, attending a school that was made for people specifically like you, it’s really hard to negate that,” Knotts said.
Like her family members before her, Knotts is grateful for the opportunity Booker T gave her. With her Booker T. education, she drew close to $1.8 million in college scholarship offers, by her mother’s account.
Knotts said she hoped to see many more students of color there in the future.
“Everyone deserves a chance to experience the magic that is Booker T. for sure,” she said. “But I definitely think that there need to be specific pathways for the students that the school was created for — Black students — to get into the school and to therefore get ahead.”
She said the school moved in a different direction after she left to attend American University in Washington, D.C.
In the past three years, the African American student population at Booker T. has fallen to its lowest numbers on record, with percentages under 30 since 2019, NCES data shows. The data goes back to 1988.
White students have not made up less than 30% of the student body in any school year tracked by the NCES.
The school used racial quotas in its admissions policies, until 2003 when a U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that such policies were discriminatory. At the time, Tulsa Public Schools’ superintendent said the existing system could not survive a court challenge, according to the Oklahoman.
Before the 2004 school year, Booker T. was required to admit freshman classes that were 45% Black. Admissions criteria today include GPA, test scores, and disciplinary record, the school website says.
Keeping the legacy going
Some Booker T. alumni want to address demographic concerns by ensuring access for those living in North Tulsa.
Journalist and local historian J. Kavin Ross graduated from Booker T. in 1980. His family has spent decades in Tulsa and many of his relatives attended the high school.
His father, Don Ross, is also one of Booker T.’s notable alums. A former executive and columnist for the Oklahoma Eagle, the elder Ross is credited with using his position as a state representative to help improve the lives for Oklahoma’s Black communities. He successfully authored Oklahoma’s first affirmative action law, helped to establish a state holiday honoring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was the principal author of legislation updating Oklahoma’s child labor laws.
Most notably, the elder Ross led the efforts to create the Tulsa Riot Commission, a team that uncovered what had really happened in 1921.
Today, the younger Ross lives so near to his alma mater that he can see it from the window of his home.
Yet when one of Ross’ nephews lived with him, he had to wake up at 6 a.m. every day to commute to high school across town. Ross said children should have priority admission to schools in their neighborhood.
Cazenave also said she wants to see an adjustment in admissions policies. Students in Greenwood should be able to take advantage of their home school, even if they do not have a perfect GPA, she said.
As earlier generations pass away, Cazenave said she feels responsible for continuing the legacy of Booker T.
“It’s up to us,” she said. “So people like me, people like Cydney and those that are coming after. It’s up to us to, you know, keep that alive, to keep the whole flame burning as to why that school and why the energy that it has, why it’s so important.”
About the series
The Oklahoma Eagle, in partnership with the University of Maryland and the University of Wisconsin, and the “On the Ground Reporting” project, collaboratively guides participating students through the process of publishing stories that focus on community groups in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The class was led by Maryland associate professor and Washington Post staff writer DeNeen Brown, an Oklahoma native, who teamed with Eagle editors M. David Goodwin and Gary Lee. – Click to learn more