By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma City’s historic Freedom Center will host a Sign Installation Ceremony at 2609 N. Martin L. King Avenue on Friday, October 9, at 11 a.m.
Invited dignitaries and special guests include Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt; Ward 7 City Councilwoman Nikki Nice; Oklahoma Urban Renewal Authority Executive Director, Cathy O’Connor; State Senator George Young; Millwood School Superintendent Cecilia Robinson-Woods; along with Freedom Center Board Members and Partners.
Due to the COVID pandemic only media representatives are invited to attend. A social distance tour will be available by request.
Originally a Mobil Gas Station, the Freedom Center was converted into a home base for the NAACP Youth Council in 1965.
The NAACP Youth Council, led by Clara Luper, teacher, historian and civil rights activist, organized a sit-in protest in 1958 at Katz Drug Store, effectively launching the most significant sit-in movement in the nation.
Luper’s vision for the Freedom Center building was “to serve as an educational and motivation center for culturally disadvantaged children.”
The building became the headquarters for community activists who fought housing discrimination and organized the 1969 Oklahoma City sanitation worker’s strike.
In 1968, a firebomb destroyed the building. Then, in 1969, Mayor Ron Norick appointed the “Mayor’s United Citizens Committee for the Reconstruction of the NAACP Youth Council Freedom Center.” That year, Lt. Governor George Nigh spoke at the venue’s ground breaking ceremony. And in 1970, an open house was held in the refurbished building.
The Freedom Center closed its doors permanently in 2011, the same year that Clara Luper died at the age of 88.
“The work to stabilize the Freedom Center building has already started,” said Leonard Benton, Chairman of the Freedom Center Board of Directors, “it’s all part of the restoration and first phase of the MAP4 Clara Luper Civil Rights Center development.”
Benton is a retired head of Urban League of Oklahoma City and a respected civic leader.
In 2018, Benton was appointed as a receiverby the courtsto “try to bring back and breathe in and reconstitute a new Freedom Center,” Benton told reporter Steve Lackmeyer for The Oklahoman.
“Since that time, we have reconstituted the board of directors consisting of 15 outstanding individuals including Marilyn Luper Hildreth (daughter of Clara, one of the original sit-in protesters); former members of the NAACP Youth Council; President of the NAACP (OKC) Garland Pruitt; former City Councilman Rev. Lee Cooper; and former City Councilman Sam Bowman – in addition to several Freedom partners, including Steve and historian Bruce Fisher,” Benton told Lackmeyer.
The Freedom Center property soon received Historic Landmark Designation by the City of Oklahoma City.
In 2019, the MAPS 4 program approved a $25 million budget for the restoration and renovation of the Freedom Center and the construction of the Clara Luper Civil Rights Center.
The MAPS 4 budget includes “the restoration of the historic Freedom Center, the restoration of an old 1957 service station that we envision becoming a visitors center, construction of parking to accommodate hundreds of visitors, we’re talking about a new 10,000-square-feet Clara Luper Civil Rights center, and construction of a new events center,” Benton told Lackmeyer.
According to the website, the Clara Luper Legacy Committee works to support the sit-in and civil rights movement in Oklahoma and the nation. Their mission is to raise awareness of the story of educator and activist, Clara Luper.
“In order to understand where we are going, we must understand where we have been.,Ó Hildreth stated. ÒIt is our responsibility to tell the story of the Oklahoma civil rights movement.
“My mother, Clara Luper, loved and was totally involved in her community,” Hildreth added. “She believed all children could learn and referred to them as her diamonds. “She always dreamed of a better day. And would say to us, ‘I want you to go to places I have never been and dream dreams I have never had.’
“I would often ask her after a demonstration when people would spit on us, kick us, laugh, and call us names, ‘Do I have to love these people?’ She would say, “You have no choice. You must love your enemies as you love yourself.”
For more information, visit claraluperlegacy.com. To learn more about all of the MAPS4 projects, visit loveyourokc.com.