The Legal Battle for Schools: Oklahoma Territory and its Role in School Segregation Law
Sara Doolittle

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Research Development Award

Award Year



University of Oklahoma

Primary Discipline

This study explores previously unstudied and undiscovered court challenges brought by black settlers in the territorial period of Oklahoma (1889-1907) in the United States. These black pioneers challenged new legislation that segregated previously integrated territorial schools. African Americans in Oklahoma Territory had equal rights to land under the Homestead Act and the territory's Organic Act. They had historic access to integrated education in other states, Indian Territory, and on military posts. Yet in the legal era that increasingly determined that segregation was equality, black settlers began to see the narrowing of their rights. These families sought the protective wing of the nascent courts whose judges were federal appointees. Territorial courts heard more challenges to segregating schools than in any state. This was a time of unique confluence of law, public education, and defining African American citizenship. Would schools be the gateway to full civic and economic participation? Or would schools be a gatekeeper, denying access to some in order to maintain dominance for others? Territorial courts tackled these questions. Historians have argued that the failure to provide African Americans with civil rights was a result of not redistributing land and/or the premature end to federal oversight in the South after 1876. Oklahoma Territory removes these variables. Black settlers had land, federal oversight, and they could vote. Nevertheless they watched their civil rights diminish as the popular will established segregated education. The loss of access to education was key in re-inscription of second-class citizenship for African Americans.
About Sara Doolittle
Sara Doolittle received her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Oklahoma. At that institution, she currently serves as a post-doctoral research associate on a donor-funded randomized controlled trial investigating high dosage mathematics tutoring in high school freshmen. Her own research focuses on the intersection of the law, race, and schools with a particular focus on nineteenth century school segregation law. Her work on legal challenges to Oklahoma territorial segregation law has appeared in History of Education Quarterly. Informed by her twenty-year career as a public educator, her research also focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century educational finance litigation. Employing both qualitative historical methodology as well as quantitative legal analysis, her work attends to the broader inequities in educational access. A 2019-2020 recipient of the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Research Development Award, she has also been selected for both the AERA Division F mentorship program and the History of Education Doctoral Summer School sponsored by the leading organizations in history of education. A proud product of an entirely public education, Sara earned her bachelor?s degree from the University of Kansas, majoring in English and graduating Phi Beta Kappa with honors. Her master?s degree is in English Curriculum Studies from the University of Colorado.

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