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Roscoe Dunjee: Fighter for Equality PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Lackmeyer   
Saturday, 25 April 2009 18:53

Roscoe Dunjee by Simmie Knox


Our ally in telling OKC History, Doug Loudenback, has established what might be the most authorative mapping of Deep Deuce yet.

Now, we delve into how Deep Deuce came into being.

The stereotypes of Oklahoma City geography are well established: If you drive east on NE 23, you will hit the "black part of town. " If you drive to NW 23 and Classen, you can see "Little Asia. " If you visit Little Flower Church on S Walker, you are in the heart of Oklahoma City's Hispanic community.

While the latter two areas formed independently, northeast Oklahoma City can directly trace its roots to discriminatory Jim Crow laws enforced by city ordinances for more than 20 years after statehood. One man, more than any other, led the fight against this injustice. His name: Roscoe Dunjee.

Ironically, racial coexistence had been a part of Oklahoma City since 1889, when approximately 200 blacks made the land run shoulder-to-shoulder with their white neighbors. By 1910 the number of blacks in the community had increased to more than 7,000, approximately 10 percent of the total population.

The state had taken its own steps toward creating Jim Crow laws in 1907. Several attempts had been made prior to statehood to codify Jim Crow rules into the constitution. But opposition by President Theodore Roosevelt stymied such efforts, which including the writing up of about 50,000 words, exhaustive debate and committee discussions on the matter.

Roosevelt proclaimed statehood November 16, 1907. Lawmakers made segregation their first order of business when they convened at Guthrie's City Hall from December 2, 1907 to May 26, 1908. Senate Bill 1 went through the overwhelmingly Democratic body, 37-2 in the Senate, 95-10 in the House — showing that the issue was bipartisan. The law required separate facilities for blacks in public transportation, public education and other public places and situations. In response riots erupted in Taft and other black communities.

All of this was a somewhat of a moot point, at first, in Oklahoma City. Until 1910 the majority of blacks in Oklahoma City lived in three loosely segregated neighborhoods: South Town, between Washington and Choctaw avenues south of town; West Town, on W 1 Street; and Sand Town, along the river east of the Sante Fe tracks. All three districts were near the railroad tracks or the river - neighborhoods that were undesirable due either to rail traffic or periodic flooding.

But the same economic good times that led to a building spree downtown - the Baum Building, the Colcord, the Skirvin, the Pioneer building and more - were also lifting the fortunes of the city's black residents. Previously all-white neighborhoods were becoming integrated and this wasn't pleasing to those who favored segregation.The white outcry for separation of the races peaked in 1916 when the Oklahoma City Board of Commissioners (predecessor to the city council) enacted an ordinance making it illegal for a person of either race to move into a block on which 75 percent of the structures were occupied by people of the opposite race.

The black community wasn't going to accept these rules without a fight, and its leader would be Roscoe Dunjee, who founded the Black Dispatch in 1915. Dunjee financed at least two efforts by black homeowners to move into areas not zoned for blacks.

William Floyd, a black shoemaker, bought a house at the corner of NE 2 and Central Avenue, an all-white block. Floyd tried to occupy his home four times. Each time, he was arrested and jailed. Dunjee paid Floyd's bond and encouraged the man to return home each time. When the case reached federal court, a judge stated that Floyd had the right to move into his property, based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1916 declaring ordinances such as Oklahoma City's unconstitutional.

A 1930 Oklahoma City Master Plan, published by the city planning commission, made note of Supreme Court rulings outlawing segregated housing and then proceeded to expand existing "Negro residential areas."

It's shocking today to read this official city document:

"Oklahoma City is primarily a city of native born white Americans. This points to the necessity of developing a city to meet the high standards of American living and working conditions. As in most of the cities of the Central and Southern states, the principal racial problem centers about the Negroes. They are a necessary and useful element in the population and proper provision should be made for their living facilities. While it is an advantage of each race that living areas be segregated, the white race should be much interested in the welfare of the Negroes because of the close contact resulting from the employment of the Negroes as servants in various capacities. "

With such rules in place, the black community built up a thriving community populated with homes, stores, offices, theaters and music halls. The area became known as "Deep Deuce" due to the steep incline of NE 2 leading up to the central business district. Jim Crow ordinances continued in Oklahoma City until the mid-1930s, when another battle financed by Dunjee reached the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Dunjee described his defense of black homeowner Sidney Hawkins in a 1947 biography he provided to The Oklahoman: In the early 1930s, Hawkins had bought a house on the north side of NE 8. Zoning regulations prohibited blacks from living farther north than the south side of NE 8, so Hawkins was arrested. Dunjee bailed Hawkins out of jail and told Hawkins to return to his house. Hawkins agreed and was arrested again. Again Dunjee bailed him out and told him to go home. Hawkins did and was arrested. The routine was repeated numerous times, including three arrests in one day.

"The Supreme Court of Oklahoma rendered an opinion in this case in 1936," Dunjee recalled. "The opinion ... outlawed residential segregation in Oklahoma. This was the first time that a Southern state supreme court had concurred in the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Louisville decision (which declared residential segregation unconstitutional). "

The downfall of legal housing discrimination was underway, but real enforcement and change wouldn't follow until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the establishment of fair housing laws in 1968. 

Last Updated on Friday, 26 February 2010 04:27