Segregation and working-class struggle part of Elizabeth Warren’s Oklahoma upbringing

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Elizabeth Warren pictured with her debate partner Karl Johnson at Northwest Classen High School in 1966. PROVIDED/1966 Northwest Classen yearbook

Liz Herring’s family had found a modest home on NW 25th Street in Oklahoma City, just one block inside the boundaries of Northwest Classen High School, a sparkling campus home to 3,000 students with a reputation as one of the state’s elite public high schools, despite opening just a few years earlier. 

In making the move in 1960 from Norman to Oklahoma City, Herring’s parents wanted their only daughter to attend the new school, where the future United States senator and presidential candidate, now known as Elizabeth Warren, would develop her early views on politics and society.

Now a multicultural high school of nearly 1,400 students, Northwest Classen of the 1960’s was seen as a haven for white families looking to escape neighborhoods undergoing desegregation efforts. 

“Oklahoma City had a large black population, but in our part of the city, they were virtually invisible,” said Karl Johnson, Warren’s high school debate partner, speaking to author Antonia Felix for a book on Warren’s life.

Warren left Oklahoma after high school and eventually settled on the East Coast, becoming an attorney, professor and then senator in Massachusetts. 

But as a candidate seeking the Democratic nomination for president, Warren regularly harks back to her Oklahoma upbringing, most often to describe how her father’s heart attack and inability to work challenged her family’s middle-class status. 

“I still remember the day we lost the family station wagon,” Warren said during a December visit to Oklahoma City, standing on a stage in the Northwest Classen High School gymnasium. 

“This is when I learned words like mortgage and foreclosure.”

Unlike her mostly affluent classmates, Warren came from a financially modest household and the loss of her father’s income required her mother to get a minimum wage job that she credits for saving the family. 

“The nearly three thousand students at Northwest Classen were taunted by some as ‘silkies’ for living in this middle- and upper-class quadrant of the city where some homes had swimming pools and lawns were manicured by hired help,” wrote Felix in the book “Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life.”

While her mother worked full time at a department store, Warren helped with babysitting jobs and working at her aunt’s restaurant in Muskogee during holiday breaks. 

Warren also advanced academically, skipping sixth grade and eventually starting high school as a 13-year-old. 

During her freshman year, Warren was active in several groups – Cygnets pep club, Junior Classical League, Courtesy Club, Announcer’s Club and reading school announcements in the morning. 

But Warren eventually developed a passion and skill for debate.

“The way I looked at it, I wasn’t pretty and I didn’t have the highest grades in school,” Warren wrote in her memoir, “A Fighting Chance.” 

“I didn’t play a sport, couldn’t sing, and didn’t play a musical instrument. But I did have one talent. I could fight – not with my fists, but with my words. I was the anchor on the debate team.”

Debate was also one of the few activities that allowed Northwest Classen’s mostly white students to interact with students at predominantly black schools across the city. 

“We debated those kids from Douglass High School and made friends with them,” said Johnson, Warren’s debate partner. 

A statue of country music singer Vince Gill is in front of Northwest Classen High School. Gill graduated from the high school in 1975. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

While her campaign did not respond to a request for an interview, Warren has returned to Oklahoma at least twice over the past year to hold rallies, both at her former high school. 

Headed into Saturday’s Nevada caucus, Warren averages 11 percent support nationally among Democrat voters, putting her behind three other candidates, according to polling averages compiled by the website Five Thirty Eight

Without a strong finish in Nevada or the following week’s South Carolina primary, many political observers have wondered if Warren can last until the March 3 Super Tuesday vote, when Oklahoma holds its primary. 

Warren has made her Oklahoma roots central to her identity as a presidential candidate, pledging to make America work for those on the brink of bankruptcy, unemployment or mired in medical debt. She has tried to position herself as one of the primary’s leading progressives, but Warren points to her upbringing in the heartland as a reason she hopes to appeal to moderate voters, and maybe even a few Republicans. 

“I come from a pretty red state, Oklahoma, born and raised,” Warren said during a campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa. “But the folks in that state and folks in a lot of other states want to see us build an America that, I think, is about a level playing field.”

While Warren speaks a lot about growing up on the “ragged edge of the middle class” and her mother’s ability to secure a middle wage job in order to save her family’s house, some have criticized Warren for not talking more about her upbringing in a segregated school system and the privilege of attending an elite all white school that served as a springboard to college.

“Warren’s continued failure to talk about the role that segregated high school played in her success is a missed opportunity to convey a unique insight into white privilege,” wrote Tommy Christopher in a column for Mediate following a speech Warren gave last year on race.  

In evoking her Oklahoma City upbringing, Christopher believes Warren should discuss white privilege and the fact that she had the chance to attend an elite public school because she was white.  

“Obviously, she had no control over this, and her parents’ motivation appears to have been to get their daughter the best education they could, but like it or not, Warren benefited tremendously from this segregated high school, and didn’t have to compete with black students for things like the debate scholarship she earned,” Christopher wrote. 

“And while she was reaping those benefits, black people were fighting for the right to join her.”

While Northwest Classen during Warren’s time as a student was almost entirely white, including an all white teaching staff until 1966, the Civil Rights movement was at play just blocks away.

Clara Luper with Northwest Classen High School students in 1968, published in her book “Behold the Walls.”

The Wedgewood Village Amusement Park, located two miles north of the high school, had been closed to blacks since it opened in 1957. In 1963, local educator and Civil Rights leader Clara Luper staged protests with white and black pro-integration marchers. The owner opened the park to blacks in August 1963. 

During Warren’s upbringing in central Oklahoma, Luper and others were engaged in demonstrations throughout the city, including drug store sit ins and marches.

Two years after Warren graduated, a court-ordered busing plan was implemented in Oklahoma City schools and Luper, who had been a teacher at the all black school of Dungee, was transferred to Northwest Classen.  

“My first day at Northwest Classen was quite memorable,” Luper later wrote in her book, “Behold the Walls.” 

She recalled a group of students chanted a racial slur as she walked past in the hallway.

“I walked straight down the hallway and said, ‘Did you young men, call me?’ I was not smiling and I said, ‘My name is Mrs. Clara Luper and remember I’m your teacher.’

“Those young men held their heads down and apologized to me. I never had any more trouble out of students at Northwest Classen.” 

In the decades since Warren’s family moved to northwest Oklahoma City in search of a better school the same white flight pattern has continued over the past several decades further north and to other suburban communities that surround the city. 

Warren’s debate trophy can still be seen in a case in Northwest Classen’s hallway but the student body that passes by is now majority Hispanic – 13 percent are black and 10 percent are white, according to this year’s state demographic count.  

Liz Herring, who is now known as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is pictured (second row, third from right) during her senior year at Northwest Classen High School in 1966. PROVIDED/1966 NW Classen yearbook

Inside Eric Parker’s classroom the multicultural makeup of the school is reflected in dozens of flags hanging from the ceiling, each representing a country of origin for one of his students.  

Parker recently sparked a conversation among his students about the Northwest Classen graduate now running for president. He also took the class to the library to flip through past yearbooks that included a student body with a much different complexion.  

“Some of my students were like, what happened?” Parker said. “Some of the students really felt that disconnect, not only racially but socioeconomically.”

Parker said his conversations with students revealed a mixture of pride in seeing an alumna like Warren, but also feeling like she represents a different world from the one they know. 

“Some of my students said they want to be able to come back to Northwest Classen after they graduate and start changing what a successful alumnus looks like,” Parker said. 

When she graduated high school at age 16, Warren accepted a debate scholarship to George Washington University. Years before running for president, Warren told the Boston Globe she fled Oklahoma because she was not interested in following the path of her classmates.

“They left to continue their same lives, lives of pep clubs and football games,’’ Warren told the Globe. “I had to go somewhere else. I couldn’t go off to OU. I couldn’t maintain the fiction anymore, not at OU, not there, not with kids living in dorms and buying formals for dances.’’ 

In recent years, Warren has embraced Oklahoma, whether physically for a rally or rhetorically during a stump speech in an early primary state.  

“Oklahoma is really a place in the heart,” she said during her 2011 induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. “This is where I learned about determination and hard work.”

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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