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Split-T faced final down in 2000

Popular Oklahoma City restaurant and hangout the Split-T featured burgers, teens from rival schools and political intrigue in its long history.

BY DAVE CATHEY Modified: September 13, 2010 at 1:28 pm •  Published: September 13, 2010
/articleid/3494515/1/pictures/1133404">Photo - RESTAURANT / 1994 / REOPEN / REOPENING: Orig. caption: With little fanfare, the Split-T, 5500 N Western, has reopened under new management.  April 30, 1994. Photo by Doug Hoke, The Oklahoman ORG XMIT: KOD
RESTAURANT / 1994 / REOPEN / REOPENING: Orig. caption: With little fanfare, the Split-T, 5500 N Western, has reopened under new management. April 30, 1994. Photo by Doug Hoke, The Oklahoman ORG XMIT: KOD

2nd down, civil rights

The Split-T became a local lightning rod in the civil rights movement of the 1960s one Friday night when the Bishop McGuinness High School football team showed up there. The manager refused to serve the blacks among the team, so the team walked out. With the high school principal's blessing, according to Katie Tener Gordy, the entire school boycotted the Split-T until the restaurant agreed to serve all students.

"That was a real powerful lesson," Gordy said. "It really brought segregation home to us."

Civil-rights leader Clara Luper told The Oklahoman in a previous interview she staged a sit-in at the Split-T.

"That was kind of the aristocratic, upper-crust part of the city, and it wasn't touched by any part of the civil rights movement," Luper said.

Split-T diners shouted profanities and threw ice and rocks at the protest crowd, Luper said. The manager tried to throw the blacks out. As the protesters sang and chanted, the police came. Luper said she and others were arrested on complaints of disorderly conduct. The next night, they did the same thing. More arrests and a restraining order followed.

"When the walls of segregation fell, I didn't go back there," said Luper, who taught at then nearby John Marshall High School. "I just couldn't get an appetite."

The end of the 1960s also meant the end of David "Johnnie" Haynes' time at the place where he started as a dishwasher. In 1971, he opened his first Johnnie's Charcoal Broiler, and the long, slow descent of the Split-T began.

3rd down and politics

By the 1980s, the Split-T became a second home for state legislators. When the Democrats who dominated the Capitol became dissatisfied with their leadership and considered a change at the top, much of the plotting happened at the T-Bar.

A group that would become known as the T-Bar 12 orchestrated the ouster of Speaker of the House Jim Barker in 1989. Members of the group invited House members to lunch at the Split-T to gauge their satisfaction with leadership. If griping began, lunch moved through the double doors to the T-Bar. On May 19, 1989, the T-Bar rebellion hit the House floor with a motion to remove Barker. When the votes were in, Barker was out.

4th down and forever

The death knell was rung by former Oklahoma State University star quarterback Rusty Hilger, who leased the space and took it in a different direction, concentrating more on live music and bar business than Caesar Burgers. It all came crashing down when Hilger was arrested in 1993 and convicted of trying to buy cocaine inside the bar. Around that same time, some serious violations were reported by the Oklahoma County Health Department, and the end followed shortly.

Chad O'Neal and Brad Vincent revived the Split-T in spring 1994. But by 2000, time had caught up to the structure, and local diners had shifted to Johnnie's for their Caesar and Theta burgers. The big red doors with the white T-shaped handles closed for good in spring 2000, and the building came down shortly after.

"They were the best hamburgers in the world as far as we were concerned," recalled Larry Shaw, of Oklahoma City, who would drive from Stillwater for a Split-T burger with his girlfriend, Margaret, now his wife.

Contributing: The Oklahoman's George Lang and The Oklahoman archives.

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