Victory of Greenwood: Ellis Walker Woods & Booker T. Washington High School

Photograph of Ellis Walker Woods courtesy of the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.

Ellis Walker Woods was born on June 29, 1885, in Winston County, eastern Mississippi, the son of a freed slave. The names of his parents are unavailable in public records, but the 1930 census indicates that they were both born in North Carolina. Woods spent his youth farming, taught summer classes in Mississippi and Arkansas to finance his education at Rust College in Holly Springs, and then attended the Auxiliary Manual Training Normal School in Pittsburg, Kansas (now Pittsburg State University). 

Initially, Woods felt that he could find a teaching position in Memphis, Tennessee, but his job search did not go well. His luck changed when he found a flyer that stated that Oklahoma was in desperate need of Black teachers. Setting off on foot, 27-year-old Woods made the more than 412-mile journey, and accepted a teaching position in Sapulpa in 1911. The flyer wasn’t an exaggeration; he was offered another teaching job in Bristow in 1912, just as he’d settled in Sapulpa to begin teaching.  At the same time, he was offered the job as principal of Dunbar High School  in Tulsa. According to a November 2, 1978, article in the Oklahoma Eagle, Woods turned down that position to teach for a short while in Bristow, but would soon be lured to Tulsa for the opportunity of a lifetime.

Building Booker T. Washington High School
The Dunbar School began in a small church on Archer Street and Kenosha Avenue, founded in 1905 by businessman Jake Dillard. Three years later, the school moved to another church on Hartford Avenue near Cameron Street. The church built a two-room frame building for the students. By 1910, the Black population had grown to the point that the school needed a larger facility. 

A two-story, eight-room brick schoolhouse was built, where all grades were taught. Almost as soon as it opened, the school was too small to accommodate all of Greenwood’s students. An eighteen-room brick building for 241 lower grade students, and a two-room frame building for seven high school students were constructed at 326 N. Hartford Avenue in the fall of 1913. Woods was hired as the new high school principal. That same year, with the community experiencing even more growth, it was decided that Dunbar needed to remain an elementary school, and a new high school needed to be built.

Architect Leon B. Senter designed a small four-room frame building, built at 507 E. Easton Street at Elgin Avenue. The new building was named the Separate School for Coloreds. Naturally, the name caused controversy. The community chose to name the school after Booker Taliaferro Washington, the Black leader who was born into slavery in Virginia, worked his way through Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), and in 1881, at age 25, was named as the first principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University). Woods moved over with the new high school, leading a staff of two teachers, Lula Sims and Myrtle McKeever. Fourteen students were enrolled. Booker T.’s first graduating class (two students) was in 1916.

Woods married his wife, Anna Riddle, in 1915, and the couple had four sons: Ellis W. Jr., Homer, Issac, and Clyde. Woods surely was happy with his choice of schools. He found Greenwood to be full of new potential and growth. As the neighborhood expanded, the four-room school soon became inadequate. Under Woods’ leadership, a larger three-story brick school was built at the same location in 1919. By the time the school organized its first basketball team in 1921, three more buildings were added to the High School’s campus.

Miraculously, Booker T.’s buildings were the only ones not damaged during the 1921 Massacre. On June 2, among some of the surrounding houses and buildings still smoldering from the attack on Greenwood, Woods agreed to allow Maurice Willows of the Red Cross to transform the campus into its headquarters for relief efforts. The school fed and sheltered 2,000 people. Willows also took full advantage of all four school buildings, establishing a hospital facility, a dental clinic, a venereal disease clinic, and a pharmacy. As the emergency relief work began to wind down in December, Booker T. prepared to open as a school again, and classes resumed in early 1922. 

Woods intentionally designed Booker T. to have a strong foundation and lasting legacy. An article by North Tulsa Magazine stated that Woods inspired his teachers, staff, and the community to support students in attending college. By 1925, the school enrolled 470 students, had a staff of 21 teachers, and added a library. Under his tenure, Booker T. became the first Tulsa high school accredited by the North Central Association, primarily due to Woods’ recruitment of teachers with advanced degrees. 

Graduates were encouraged to return to teach and lead the next generation. Students in each grade were required to participate in sports in the school’s early days, establishing the school’s legendary athletics programs. According to Hornets athletics historian LaMar Burks, the legendary Booker T. Washington teacher, W. D. Williams, and assistant coach, Ben ‘Big Ben’ McKinney, replaced the school’s panther mascot with a hornet saying, “Hornets sting and never let go.” They felt this matched the Booker T. athletes’ style of play.

Woods’ Last Message
In addition to his excellent leadership of the school itself, Woods became a pillar of the community in segregated Tulsa and was often consulted on race matters by local leaders. Woods served as president of the Oklahoma Association of Negro Teachers, an officer of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Hutcherson branch of the YMCA, a trustee of Vernon AME Church, and was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The end of World War II paved the way for racial integration throughout the country. In 1946, Oklahoma Governor Robert S. Kerr consulted with Woods to plot a course for academic integration in Oklahoma. The plan would not be realized in Woods’ lifetime, nor would the building of yet another new expansion of the school, but the foundation that Wood laid for Booker T. remains with the school to the present day.

Woods’ dedication to education and his students led him to secure funding for a new physical location for Booker T. Washington High School in his last years. The Supreme Court would not hear Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka for another six years, and so school segregation was still the law of the land. For Tulsa, this meant that separate municipal bonds were also required to raise any capital funding to build a new all-Black school. Woods worked tirelessly to secure a bond election that raised $1.4 million to build the new facility. 

Woods died in 1948 at age 63, a week before county commissioners awarded the contract to build the new school. His memorial services were held at the Tulsa Convention Center, one of the few venues large enough to accommodate the mourners who longed to say their last goodbye to the principal who had nobly served the school for 25 years. He was fondly dubbed “the quintessential Tulsan” by local media. In the 1948 Booker T. yearbook, Woods left his students with an oft-repeated encouragement: “You’re as good as ninety percent of all the people and better than the other ten.”

When the new school was opened at 1631 E. Woodrow Place on September 3, 1950, Woods’ widow, Anna, cut the ribbon at the building dedication ceremony. One visitor said the new school was “fancy enough to make me want to go back to school.” Clyde L. Cole was named the new principal in 1948, and ushered the transition to the new building. However, he only served five years, due to his unexpected death in 1953. Henry C. Whitlow, Jr. became Booker T.’s third principal and would serve for the next 17 years.

School Segregation
The local school district, Tulsa Public Schools (TPS), was slow to dismantle its segregated school system. Seemingly ignoring Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Tulsa still had white-only and Black-only schools in 1971.

At this time, Tulsa was still racially divided along north–south lines, housing segregation by law having just ended in 1963. More than the ending of the housing ordinance, the building of highway 244 between 1967 and 1971 erected a physical barrier between North and South, and therefore between Black and white Tulsa. TPS first planned to desegregate its faculty, moving Black teachers to all-white schools, and white teachers to all-Black schools. By 1969, half of the faculty at Booker T. was white, while the student body remained almost entirely Black. The white teachers resented teaching Black students. Black teachers, forced out of their community’s schools, resented their assignments as well. As one can imagine, this was disastrous for teachers and students. TPS had no plans in place to deal with cultural differences between two very different communities.

During the 1971–72 school year, a small number of progressive white families voluntarily transferred their students to Booker T. in a unique program called “Metro.” That same school year, TPS closed Carver Middle school, and 1,200 students were force-bussed to East and South Tulsa schools. Carver would remain closed for two years. It was a time of turmoil and hatred, recalls Nancy McDonald, who collaborated with Mayor Bob LaFortune, the Tulsa School Board, and community advocates, such as Mabel B. Little (who initially led protests at School Board meetings), to try to come up with better solutions — to create innovative programs for Tulsa’s schools and not deprive North Tulsa of its resources, but add to the exemplary programming that Booker T. and Carver had already developed.

By 1973, TPS created volunteer programs, support for field trips, and transportation for white students to attend Booker T., rather than bussing Black students out of their community. Much like Greenwood’s community spirit in business and housing, Booker T. served as a model for an inclusive school community, serving the students who lived in the neighborhoods near the school while also welcoming students from other parts of the city. This integration program became the first in a historically African-American school.

As part of the new integration policy, Booker T. Washington became a magnet school; students not living near the school were required to apply for admission. TPS developed a racial quota system to ensure diversity. Until the 2004–2005 school year, 45% of the students admitted identified themselves as “white,” 45% as “black,” and 10% were of other races and ethnicities. However, in the 2003 Supreme Court’s Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger decisions, the court ruled that quota systems constituted racial discrimination. Booker T. was forced to accept students using a different method. The school now uses an application system that accounts for the geographical location in which a student resides. Today, fewer than 30 percent of the students attending Booker T. are Black.

The New Home of the Hornets
Booker T. Washington was one of the first Tulsa public high schools to offer Advanced Placement courses. It began offering the International Baccalaureate program in 1983. The goal of the program is to develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. “The Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs really make Booker T. what it is today,” Principal James Furch stated in a 2013 article for Tulsa People magazine. 

Booker T. Washington High School’s new 213,000-square-foot building was completed in the fall of 2003, as the school began its 90th year. The previous building’s front section was retained for its historical significance. The new high school is a unique achievement: a state-of-the-art, expansive, and technology-rich facility that celebrates its distinctive heritage within the Tulsa community. The top public high school in Oklahoma, Booker T. Washington is also one of the top-rated schools in the nation. The 1,250-student school is considered a cornerstone of North Tulsa’s African-American community.

In 2003, a historical marker was dedicated at the site of the 1913 Booker T. building where Woods began as principal. In 2010, Booker T. Washington placed 74th in Newsweek magazine’s list of the top 100 public high schools in the U. S. In the school’s centennial year, 2013, U. S. News and World Report ranked Booker T. Oklahoma’s top public high school. Today, Booker T. has the largest high school student enrollment in TPS,  and is still ranked first among the district’s high schools. 

A Memorial for Booker T. Legend
Today the Ellis Walker Woods Memorial, dedicated in August 2019, is at the OSU-Tulsa campus, located near Booker T. Washington High School’s original 1913 location. The outdoor memorial consists of several granite pillars, etched with quotes from Woods and the names and pictures of notable Booker T. Washington alumni. A bust of Woods and an eternal flame sit atop taller columns in the center of the memorial.

E. W. Woods Memorial Committee Chair, Captola Spiller Dunn, stated in an article for local NPR affiliate station, KWGS, that the Ellis Walker Woods Memorial was a project almost 30 years in the making. She led a dedicated committee including Julius Pegues, Dr. LaVerne Wimberly, and E. W. W. Liaison. Research for the massive task of listing Booker T.’s prominent graduates and the school’s history was led by Edgar Albert Dunn and assisted by Giselle McDaniels, a librarian at Tulsa Community College’s Northeast Campus. For her tireless work, Dunn was awarded OSU-Tulsa’s inaugural ASPIRE Award in 2020. “I appreciate Mr. Woods for giving me the courage to know that I’m as good as anybody else,” Dunn said in a video shown during OSU-Tulsa’s 2020 Virtual Graduation Ceremony. The OSU-Tulsa ASPIRE Award is presented to community members who embody the spirit of OSU-Tulsa’s mission as a metropolitan, urban-serving public research university. Each letter of ASPIRE stands for the university’s six priorities: Access to education, Service to the community, Premier Programs, Innovation, Research, and Economic development.

Booker T. Today and Tomorrow
To list the notable alumni of Booker T. would require a book in and of itself. A visit to the monument is highly recommended. It is a testament to the school’s legacy that everyone interviewed for this chapter agrees that their experience at Booker T. was life-defining. The school has numerous alumni groups, with members throughout the country who continue to give back to North Tulsa and continue to serve their own community—wherever they might be—with a sense of duty and pride.  

Former Director of Theater Arts at Booker T., Lincoln Cochran, says, “Booker T. continues to have a great impact on the community of families it serves. It is the benchmark, sets the bar, and is the standard and tradition of educational excellence that remains present in the minds of its students.” Today, Cochran serves as the English Language Development (ELD) facilitator at Anderson Elementary School and volunteers in Greenwood, leading the Black Wall Street Alliance and collaborating with the Greenwood Cultural Center to bring some of its exhibits into the 21st-century. He is part of a new generation of Black entrepreneurs who are bringing back Greenwood’s community spirit, in large part due to his experience at Booker T. “To be a BTW Hornet means having the drive to open opportunities for yourself and others through hard work, study, personal growth and the endless quest for equality, inclusion, and therefore success.”

Today the school is led by Dr. Melissa Woolridge, who is proud of “serving as the principal of my alma mater and the pride of the great southwest.” Dr. Woolridge earned a Master of Science degree in curriculum and instruction, and a doctoral degree in environmental science from Oklahoma State University. Having served at Booker T. since 2017, one of Dr. Woolridge’s biggest hopes for the school is growing the Booker T. Washington Foundation for Excellence, established in 1993 as an independent 501(c)(3) organization. The foundation raises money for the school to pay for additional teachers and classroom experiences and activities. Already an innovative concept, she hopes that the foundation can truly one day provide unique opportunities. “Maybe for robotics or a trip to France,” Woolridge says.

In a new era where racial tensions are at an all-time high, conversations about systemic racism, respecting different politics and points of view, and recent conflicting movements such as MAGA and BLM have not escaped the hallways of Booker T. Still, alumni like Reggie Mayes, who leads an online group called “Hornets Silencing Hate”,  remains hopeful for the future and wants to remind students, faculty, and Booker T. families that, “Our diversity is our strength. It is still true today. We are different, but share common goals and justice for all. We appreciate and embrace different ways of thinking. When the person next to you has your best interest at heart, it’s an easy conversation. When we remember that community spirit, tremendous things can be done in a short period of time.”