One step at a time.
It’s how Ellis Walker Woods, when looking for a job once as a young teacher, made the trip from Tennessee to Oklahoma.
Fittingly, more than 100 years later, it’s also how a group inspired by him has arrived where it now finds itself — on the verge of finishing a three-decade “walk” of its own.
“When I think or talk about it, it’s emotional. The completion — I won’t say ‘end’ — of an almost 30-year journey,” said Captola Dunn, one of the leaders behind an effort to honor Woods, who famously walked 500 miles to get to Oklahoma.
This Friday, Dunn, co-chairwoman of the Ellis Walker Woods Memorial committee, and her fellow members will officially present to Tulsa their long-awaited memorial to the late Woods, founding principal of the city’s first black high school under segregation.
An unveiling and dedication ceremony is set for 9 a.m. at the memorial, which is on the Oklahoma State University-Tulsa campus near the original Booker T. Washington High School site.
The $212,500 project has been in the works for nearly 30 years, a labor of love for some of Woods’ former students and other BTW alumni.
Woods, who arguably had as far-reaching an influence as any educator in Tulsa’s history, was principal from BTW’s first year in 1913 until his death in 1948.
The memorial features a bust of Woods and a ring of tall granite obelisks.
“It’s a relief to finally see it finished,” Dunn said.
The original idea, she added, traces back three decades to a backyard barbecue in, of all places, Los Angeles.
She and her late husband, Al Dunn, along with other BTW alumni living there at the time, liked to get together and talk about growing up in Tulsa and their memories of school.
At this barbecue, Al Dunn and classmate Richard Gipson decided their influential principal “deserved to have his memory etched in the mind of the community,” Captola Dunn said.
Sadly, while they spearheaded the memorial project for years, neither Dunn nor Gipson would get to see this day. Both are deceased.
“Before he passed, Al said ‘whatever you do, complete the memorial,’ ” his wife said.
Walking the walk
The son of a freed slave, Woods grew up in Mississippi, where he attended Rust College in preparation for a career in education.
After graduating, he relocated to Memphis, but few opportunities there led him to look west.
A flier from Oklahoma calling for “colored teachers” was all the prompting he needed.
Lacking other transportation options, Woods, the story goes, proceeded to cover the distance on foot, crossing fields and following railroad tracks to reach the Tulsa area.
The new high school opened its doors in 1913. Woods, as principal, used segregation to his students’ advantage, shielding them from an often unfriendly white society and instilling in them a sense of self-worth.
“He gave us the belief that we could do whatever we wanted to do as long as we prepared ourselves,” said Dunn, a 1949 graduate.
“He had this saying to students that ‘You are as good as 90 percent of the people and better than the other 10 percent.’”
Preparing themselves meant taking advantage of your education.
“He would see to it that you went to college, if you graduated from high school. And many who did, then came back and taught” at BTW.
At 87, Dunn is one of few alumni left with personal memories of Woods.
“He was a person who was present on campus and approachable,” she said. “He showed a lot of concern for his students.”
‘A place of high expectations’
Maxine Horner, who graduated in 1951, missed by a year the chance to have Woods as principal and said it was her “biggest disappointment.”
“I had a great admiration and love for him just from what the other students said,” she added.
However, Horner, who later became one of Oklahoma’s first black female legislators, benefited directly from what Woods had established, including being part of the first class to graduate from the newly built BTW high school.
Woods had pushed for successful passage of the bond issue that funded the facility, helping secure the school’s future before his death.
Although he didn’t live to see it finished, his presence seemed to fill the new site, Horner said.
“Mr. Woods established Booker T. as a place of high expectations,” she said. “He was one of those rare great persons that comes along and I’m excited to see him honored with this memorial.”
Woods’ influence extended well beyond the school. A civic and church leader as well, he served as the voice for Tulsa’s black community to local and state leaders.
“He was the go-to person in north Tulsa for years until he passed,” Dunn said.
When Woods died, his service was held at the Tulsa convention center. It was the only place in town that could accommodate the legion of mourners.
Paying tribute to a man with that kind of impact has “been worth the effort,” said Julius Pegues, project manager behind the memorial.
Pegues, a 1953 BTW graduate, was in middle school when Woods died, but had the chance to see and hear him more than once.
“I remember he was tall and smart,” Pegues chuckled. “Wherever he was, he was in command of the situation, and when he spoke he had your attention. He really loved his students and commanded great respect from them.”
In an era when so much was denied to them, Woods’ recurring message was one really needed by young African Americans, Pegues said.
“He told students that there wasn’t anything you could not do,” he said.
“He inspired them to do bigger and better things.”
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