The Day Clara Luper and Mrs. John A. Brown Met
Clara Luper and the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council’s historic 1958 sit-in opened up Katz Drug Store lunch counters in Oklahoma City and elsewhere to African-Americans. Oklahoma school history teacher Luper, the famed “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” then turned her focus to the iconic, OKC-based John A. Brown Department Store chain. She was determined that blacks be allowed to sit at Brown’s lunch counters. Also, that they could try on the shoes and clothes they were allowed to purchase, but not check for size—that is, put up against or wrap around their skin. For four years, from 1957-1961, she and other blacks as well as whites picketed and protested —always non-violently— out front of the main downtown store, and conducted sit-ins at the Brown’s lunch counter. All the while, Luper tried without success to connect by phone with the widowed company owner, Della Dunkin Brown. Then, Brown responded, but an angry Luper ignored her for weeks, while continuing to protest. Finally, after many of Luper’s best friends, family members, trusted counselors, and even NAACP youth admonished her that she should lay aside her pride and meet with Brown, she did so. She recounted the memorable events which followed in her book Behold the Walls, excerpted below.
Members of the Oklahoma City National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Youth Council, under the direction of Clara Luper, sit in at the main John A. Brown Department Store location lunch counter in downtown in Oklahoma City in the early 1960s. Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society.
I was ready for Mrs. John A. Brown. All of the frustrations building within me for the last four years were going to come out “right in her white face.”
When the secretary opened the door, I walked into an office. I was overcome with history because that office was Mr. John A. Brown’s former office. The furniture, the pictures, the papers and in spite of the improvements and re-furnishings that had happened at John A. Brown’s, that office was just as it was when Mr. Brown died years ago. This was a woman who was clearly still very much in love with her husband. My frustrations began to diminish and when Mrs. Brown opened the door, we both stood speechless before each other and with tears in our eyes, we embraced each other as if we had been friends for years. Oh, I know this couldn’t be, but it was, and now we were talking. Two women, one black and one white. One rich and one poor.
Led by Mrs. John A. Brown for nearly thirty years, Browns Department Stores coupled imagination, innovation, customer service, and daring to grow into one of the largest employers in Oklahoma and one of the great commercial dynasties of the Southwest. Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society.
Historical circumstances had brought us together. We talked about our families and some of the problems we had faced as we both tried to compete in a man’s business world. We both cried again as I told her how I had tried to make it. How I was working on three jobs trying to educate my children and to provide them with the necessities of life. She told me about her husband and how he had died. We talked about how much we had loved and how much we had lost.
Finally, she said, “I have been told that you hate me, is that true”? I said, “No, Mrs. Brown. I do not hate you. I respect you. You have challenged the male-oriented business world; you shall always have my respect.”
“I have been told that you hated me,” I said.
“Oh, no, Clara, I’ve heard that, but it is not true. I admire your courage. I have stood here and have wondered day in and day out, what you and your children were saying about me. Clara, tell me, please tell me, what the children think about me? What do they say, Clara?”
Clara Luper during one of her twenty-six arrests. (Courtesy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP)
As I looked at her, I knew that I had to tell her the truth. Her penetrating eyes stared directly into mine.
“Mrs. Brown, they say that they wish you had died in place of Mr. Brown. They said if he were living they believe they would be able to eat here.”
For a few minutes there was complete silence and then she spoke.
“Clara, day in and day out, I have worried about this thing. I just don’t know how to deal with it. You see, Mr. Frank Wade has leased space in my store to operate the luncheonette and under his lease he has the sole right to run it in his own way. You see my hands have been completely tied.”
“Yes, Mrs. Brown, but we don’t know anything about Frank Wade, but John A. Brown’s that’s different. This is the store where we have spent our money and we can’t see how we can be discriminated against under the roof of a Brown’s store.”
We talked for nearly an hour. Mr. Anderson came in and brought us some lemonade. He offered her the first glass and she said, “Serve Clara first.”
Clara Luper coaches up people in 1964 before they head out to test their reception in OKC restaurants following the passage of both local and federal civil rights equal access laws. Courtesy Oklahoma Publishing Company and Oklahoma Historical Society.
Finally she said, “Take this message back to the children. Segregation will end at John A. Brown’s.”
I was so proud of her. She admitted to me that the first time I was arrested, she called and offered to pay my bond. She never missed calling to see if I were all right, she said.
She asked me to come and meet with the executives of John A. Brown and tell them why we selected their store.
I followed her to a spacious conference room where I told my story….When I left that day…I had a lifetime friend in Mrs. John A. Brown.
The Brown-Dunkin Department Store Building, 4th and Main in Tulsa. A separate entity from John A. Brown Stores but also owned by Della Brown. Courtesy Tulsa City County Libraries Beryl Ford Collection.
An agreement was made that day that Brown’s segregation walls would fall. In less than a week, blacks were eating (lunch there).
Mrs. Brown and I continued to talk by telephone. She invited me to go to Europe with her. I turned it down because of other commitments. Before she went into the hospital for the last time, she called and told me that she was going in under a different name and she probably would never see me again. She wanted me to know that she appreciated what we had done for this city, a city that she loved so well.
Della Dunkin Brown, second from left (and inset), shortly before her death in 1967. She remains one of the great philanthropists in the history of the state, though largely anonymous, partly due to terrifying kidnapping threats. Oklahoma City Mayor Jim Norick, father of future OKC Mayor Ron Norick, speaks. Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society.
Mrs. John A. Brown acquainted me with loneliness in a way that I had never known it before. When she died, I couldn’t control my emotions. I went to her funeral and followed the procession to her final resting place.
A white executive of the store said, “I’m glad you came.”
She was my friend, I loved her, and I had to come.