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Recordings keeping sit-in's history alive

by Bryan Painter Modified: August 18, 2008 at 6:23 pm •  Published: August 18, 2008
Rodger Harris wasn't among the white patrons of Katz Drug Store on Aug. 19, 1958, when 13 black youths took a seat at the lunch counter in the first of the sit-ins.

However, because of the video and audio archives of the Oklahoma Historical Society, Harris can go back to that day. In a way, we can all go back.

Harris, 63, is an oral historian, an audio/video time traveler.

On a January's day in 1997, he miked I.G. Purser, a former chief of the Oklahoma City Police Department, who in 1958 was a lieutenant assigned to overseeing the protests. Two years later, Harris and intern Floyd Freeman, then a recent graduate of Langston University, interviewed civil rights leader Clara Luper with a video camera rolling.

And then days after the interview with Luper, Freeman did another tremendous service to historical preservation when he interviewed adults who were children when they participated in the initial sit-in at Katz.

Yes, in a way, we can all go back.

"I believe that white Oklahomans had never seen us, they'd never thought about us.”

Clara Luper, in a 1999 interview with Harris and Freeman.

The interview with Luper lasted more than two hours.

But it didn't take Harris long to pick up on one underlying motivator.

"She had come to realize that African-American people were just invisible,” he said.

Harris, who grew up in Marlow, said he was oblivious to civil rights issues until he entered college in the early 1960s.

"I knew exactly what she meant because I was on the other side, looking at history from my perspective,” he said, "and I knew she was right.”

But Luper didn't just acknowledge issues, she acted on them.

"She thought if problems were brought to the attention of the general public that positive changes would occur,” he said.

"At that moment my whole life reflected in front of me. I saw my dad who had died in the Veteran's Hospital, 1957, who had dreamed that someday his children would be able to enjoy these things,” Luper said when asked by the children whether they should conduct a sit-in at the Katz Drug Store.

Sometimes an interviewer can hear a quote before it is spoken. Harris has been an oral historian at the Historical Society for 18 years.

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by Bryan Painter
Assistant Local Editor
Bryan Painter, assistant local editor, has 31 years’ experience in journalism, including 22 years with the state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman. In that time he has covered such events as the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah...
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