Clara Luper was a lot of things — teacher, leader, even hero. But she also was a family member and friend, people said as they attended a funeral Friday in Oklahoma City for the civil rights leader.
“Clara Luper was beyond her time,” Narva Johnson, 63, said as she stood outside the Cox Convention Center, where the funeral was to be held. “She was a very good friend of mine.”
Johnson's parents, L.J. and Alberta Johnson, owned the Blackstone Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City. So the Johnson family was well aware of Luper's struggle to end segregation in downtown businesses, she said.
The Johnson family donated generously to the civil rights movement, she said. The Blackstone had to be operated as a segregated business, too, with a side for whites only and a side for anyone else.
“She was the bravest, most courageous person I've ever known,” she said. “I saw Ms. Luper do some things that blacks were just horrified to do.”
Even some blacks opposed Luper's actions, she said. “They thought she was making trouble.” She said the thinking went like this: “Ms. Luper's down there messing with those white folks. She knows she can't do that. She knows what'll happen to us. Ain't none of us going to have jobs.”
Nasheema Gouldsby, 25, of Oklahoma City, said Luper was a cousin. She remembered attending fish fries at Luper's house and being fascinated with her gold fish pond. “I was, like, trying to get out there and get one, and she spanked me.”
She remembers Luper constantly pushing education as a way to a better life, saying, “there was nothing we couldn't do.” Gouldsby said her uncle participated in sit-ins organized by Luper, and Luper insisted that they remain peaceful.
“He had a bit of a temper,” Gouldsby said of her uncle. “She had to calm him down.”
Ambra Harris, 29, of Oklahoma City, who once sang for Luper as part of a church choir performance, said that on the way to the memorial, she realized the impact that the civil rights pioneer had: “I sat at the front of the trolley today.”
Bobbie Powell, of Okmulgee, and Iceola Dillingham, from nearby Grayson, traveled from Okmulgee with a busload of students attending a multicultural summer enrichment program, hoping to help them learn more about black history.
Powell said Luper's sister was her aunt, and Luper “was just like an auntie.” Mostly she knew Luper as a schoolteacher. When she learned about her civil rights activities, “I was totally amazed,” she said.“It took guts to do what she did.”
Dillingham was in Tacoma, Wash., at the time of the sit-ins, but she heard all about it from friends and family. “I was amazed and I was proud of her. Somebody had to take a step.
“I think she's a hero because if it had not been for her making a stand, where would we be?”
Former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts said he first met Luper as a high school senior while on a visit to the University of Oklahoma, an event where he also met Martin Luther King Sr.
As a nephew of longtime NAACP state president Wade Watts, J.C. Watts couldn't help but hear all about Luper. She led the way for people like him, he said.
“I stand on the shoulders of Clara Luper with many of the things I have been able to accomplish,” he said. “We've lost a real warrior.”
Those who knew Clara Luper say they will make sure the next generations remember what she did for them. Like Lonell Rollerson, 71.
Standing outside a barber shop next door to the Freedom Center founded by Luper in northeast Oklahoma City, Rollerson recalled conditions for blacks when he first came to Oklahoma City 51 years ago. “It was terrible back then.”
At his side was his 2-year-old grandson. Asked if he would tell the boy about Luper, Rollerson said, “Somebody will.”
Falyn Embry, 18, Miss Black Teen OCU and a Clara Luper scholar, said after arriving at the funeral that Luper taught her generation to stand up for principles. “If she can do it, we can do it,” she said.
Some young people still don't know Luper's contributions, Embry said. “I said, ‘I'm going to her funeral,' and a lot of people asked me who (Luper) was. I think that's kind of sad.”
But Embry said Luper's example has inspired her to try to be a leader in the community. “People like me should go out and tell people about her so her legacy can live on.”