The bellhops at the city hotels and the bottlers at Jay-Kola all took their money to the same place: Deep Deuce, the heart of Oklahoma City's black community.
Barred from shopping at white stores or eating at white restaurants, blacks built their own business and entertainment center in the valley around the 300 block of NE 2. Residents and travelers found lodging in the hotels and rooming houses, and entrepreneurs provided services that otherwise would've been denied blacks.
“They couldn't move beyond certain streets,” said Bruce Fisher, administrative programs officer for the Oklahoma Historical Society, “but within those streets, they had everything they needed, many shops and hotels, and when people would come to town, that's where they'd always go.”
And why not? Deep Deuce — also called Deep Two and Deep Second — was home to happening night spots, drawing renowned jazz and blues musicians from all over the south. Local talent included Jimmy Rushing and Charlie Christian.
“The Blue Devils, a famous territorial band, called Second Street home,” wrote Anita G. Arnold in the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture. “The Pulitzer Prize-winner Ralph Ellison grew up in the district. Deep Deuce was famous for parades, street dances, ... New Orleans-style funerals, and for a Thursday night tradition called ‘maids night out,' a grand ‘street' fashion show involving the whole community as either spectators or participants.”
One of the most-loved nightclubs was Ruby's Grill, Fisher said.
“I read a report that said when it opened it was the finest club in the southwest,” said Fisher, who remembers getting his hair cut in Deep Deuce as a boy. “It had air conditioning and soundproof rooms, and the big neon sign that was outside of it just glittered.”
Sometimes black musicians performed for white audiences elsewhere in the city, then came back to Deep Deuce to jam in the black clubs. Crowds spilled into the street.
“Some of those jam sessions would just go on all through the night,” Fisher said. “They would also have breakfast dances, when the party lasted all night long until the morning time and then they had breakfast and kept the party going.”
It wasn't all about partying.
Roscoe Dunjee based his Black Dispatch newspaper in the midst of Deep Deuce, and from it launched an unprecedented assault against the forces of oppression.
“With the power of the press, Dunjee broke down the barriers of segregation in housing, education, transportation and public facilities,” Arnold wrote. “Considered by many to be one of the nation's foremost civil rights champions, Dunjee used his newspaper, the courts, the Oklahoma Legislature and the federal government to win justice for African Americans in the state, as well as nationally.”
Black businesses grew, and with growth came opportunity.
Percy and Hattie James started bottling and distributing soft drinks sometime around 1920.
“The Jay-Kola soda company was on 10th Street,” said their granddaughter, Jewel Jones, of Alaska. “It was really a garage in the back of their house. They had some of the most unique flavors. They had formulas for peach and strawberry and root beer. The cream soda, I think, was the favorite.”
The James family opened the Jewel Theater, which still stands near NE 4 and Laird, giving blacks access to movies. Percy James bought buildings in Deep Deuce, and after he and his wife divorced, she remarried Earl Miller. Together, they owned a clothing store, a cafe and a hotel.
“They were real entrepreneurs,” Jones said, “and they didn't need much education. Everybody helped everybody. ... It wasn't about how smart you were or how many degrees you had.”
That's the irony of segregation: By forcing blacks into racial isolation, the enemies of equality helped create the very thing they feared — strong black communities with independence and economic power.
By the late 1950s, blacks had wielded that power so effectively that they didn't need Deep Deuce anymore. By then, so many blows had been struck for equality that opportunities were opening up all over town. Prejudice didn't collapse all in one stroke, but the barriers to freedom crumbled little by little, allowing black families to move to neighborhoods previously denied them and get jobs that had been out of reach.
Fisher remembers when his family moved in 1962 from a black neighborhood to the white area of Springlake Drive. An amusement park was right there, so close, but he wasn't allowed to enjoy it until 1964, when the federal Civil Rights Act spelled the official end to segregation.
“Now we could go anywhere,” Fisher said. “We could stay at any hotel, eat at any restaurant, shop at any store, bank at any bank. That opened up the whole world.”
Through the latter decades of the 20th century, Deep Deuce — once so vibrant and colorful — fell deeper and deeper into decline. Businesses closed. Buildings emptied. Homes were left to rot.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, a suspected serial killer roamed the area, killing at least three prostitutes and depositing their body parts in empty alleys and vacant homes. He never was captured.
Eventually most of the buildings were razed. A few still stand, including the Little Page Hotel and what used to be known as Calvary Baptist Church. The rest were bulldozed to make Deep Deuce what it is today: an affluent neighborhood of apartments and high-end condominiums, complete with specialty bars and restaurants. It's a gorgeous, if sparkling new, rebuild that has created safe and trendy housing near Bricktown.
Not everything from Deep Deuce's early days is gone. The Oklahoma History Center claimed what it could, and its black history exhibit includes immersive displays on jazz and blues. The movie projector from the Jewel Theater sits cattycorner from the Katz Drug Store lunch counter display and water fountains marked “white” and “colored.”
Some time ago, Fisher noticed two boys making their way through the exhibit. They scrutinized the non-working fountains closely. Then one turned to the other: “I wonder what color the water's supposed to be,” he said.
That's how far we've come.
WHAT TO SEE
Oklahoma City is so large it's impossible to touch on all the sites relevant to black history. We've chosen a few of particular interest.
Oklahoma History Center
Oklahoma has no better custodians of the past than the professionals at the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Even so, it's no secret that for most of the 20th century, black contributions to the state went “totally ignored,” said Bill Welge, director of the Society's research division.
“It's been only in the past 20 or 25 years that the ... Society has seen the error of its ways and made a concerted effort to go out into the African-American community in the state to collect and preserve and try to overcome the negative perceptions that we created,” Welge said.