It was back in 1991 that the Friends of Old Central was established as a nonprofit support group to champion the Oklahoma Museum of Higher Education at Old Central on the Oklahoma State University campus in Stillwater.
The goal was to strengthen the development and maintenance of exhibits at the museum in one of the oldest restored higher educational structures in Oklahoma. The museum grew to encompass the history of more than 140 public and private colleges and universities in Oklahoma. The Friends of Old Central was renamed the Friends of the Museum of Higher Education in 1993 and then the Oklahoma Higher Education Heritage Society in 2003.
Now the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS), the Oklahoma Higher Education Heritage Society (OHEHS) and the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education have partnered to establish the nation's first and only higher education archive, said Jeanne Prince, OHS archivist who directs collections for the OHEHS.
Materials and artifacts of the archive preserve the stories of the creation, growth, successes and failures of Oklahoma colleges and universities.
“The mission of OHEHS is to preserve the heritage and history of higher education in Oklahoma,” said Prince, “and to promote enhanced awareness of higher education's vital role in the state's social, cultural, economic and educational development.”
The history of higher education in Oklahoma is “the story of the American dream,” said Bob Blackburn, OHS executive director. “And the chapters of that story, which include leadership, opportunity and faith in the future, can be traced through the historic buildings and campuses across the state.”
Through the historic buildings of Langston University, for example, Blackburn sees the story of Inman Page, the college president who joined the ranks of intellectuals pushing back against the walls of segregation. Through Old Central at OSU, he sees the story of LeRoy Fischer, who became the champion of historic preservation in the state.
Through the Kellogg Center for Continuing Education at the University of Oklahoma, he sees E.T. Dunlap's belief that education is not just a skill to get a job, but also a window to a lifetime of learning.
“The physical legacy of historic buildings is the tissue that connects our generation with those who have fought for the chance to get a college education,” said Blackburn.
Oklahoma college and university campuses feature 21 properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places, said Melvena Heisch, deputy director of the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office.
“These include the Oscar B. Jacobson House, just off the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman, because the university owns it,” said Heisch. “It originally was the private home of Jacobson, a famous art professor who influenced and guided the careers of the Kiowa Five.
“The house became a center of controversy just before the nomination was proposed. Ultimately, OU entered into an agreement with the Jacobson Foundation to use the house for exhibits and events. The house was listed on the National Register in 1986.”
The first Oklahoma higher education property listed on the National Register was the Old North Tower at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond on June 21, 1971. It was followed by Old Central in Stillwater on July 27, 1971.
Next came the Cherokee Female Seminary on the campus of Northeastern State University in Tahlequah in 1973 and the St. Gregory's Abbey & College on the St. Gregory's College Shawnee campus in 1975. The President's House (known as the Boyd House) on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman and the Indian University of Tahlequah were listed in 1976.
These have been followed by properties in various parts of Oklahoma. They have ranged from the Old Science Building on the Southwestern State University campus in Weatherford to Mitchell Hall on the Eastern Oklahoma State University campus in Wilburton; and from Franklin Hall on the Panhandle State University campus in Goodwell to the Langston University Cottage Row Historic District in Langston.
OHEHS collections are held and maintained at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City, said Prince. They include records detailing organization, policy, procedure, operation and transactions of college and university faculty and staff members; publications; institutional and oral histories, plus photos, films, videotapes, microfilms and memorabilia.
As the archivist, Prince processes collections donated to the collection. She also assists researchers and has created an outreach program that includes visits to all the colleges and universities in Oklahoma. She meets with librarians, archivists and other staff members on campuses and offers advice about archival policies, procedures, collection care and preservation.
All this amounts to a remarkable joint effort by OHS and OHEHS, said Blackburn, to preserve the histories of higher education campuses as they have helped Oklahomans realize their dreams for more than a century.
Max Nichols writes a monthly column for the Oklahoma Historical Society.