In honor of black history month, I traveled back through the chronicles of Jenks yearbooks and novels to find things that highlight my high school’s inclusion of African Americans since the school began keeping record of it in the 1920’s.
Jenks’ building five library carries a copy of every Jenks High School Yearbook since 1954. Next to the books, I found two copies of a semi-large novel which contains every piece of Jenks’ history since the early 1900’s, titled Tune of the Hickory Stick.
I understand that the ideals of the past have drastically changed. However, the facts that surfaced in the first black faces I found in Jenks public schools still alarmed me, mainly due to the fact that they were not African American. Tune of the Hickory Stick has a picture of several white students in blackface, performing in the play “Adam’s Evening” in 1921.
After seeing the picture, my immediate reaction was, “Ew, why would they do that?” I don’t like to think of Jenks like that, but I ultimately had to come to the conclusion that the 1920s were different times and people have changed since then. So, I continued my search, only to find another blackface play in 1954.
Even though those were more recent times, once again, I could face the reality that back in those days things were not the same. Jenks Public Schools were not even integrated at that point in time. I let the new offensive picture slide, until someone pointed out a picture in the 1989 yearbook of a white student, once again in blackface, playing Tituba the drama department’s production of The Crucible.
Fortunately it wasn’t all bad. As I dug deeper into the records I found black faces that actually belonged to the first African American students that attended Jenks.
In 1956, Jenks Public school was integrated with African Americans as found in their yearbook. This was just a year after Brown v. Board of education was enacted as federal law. A tiny paragraph tucked into the corner of Tune of the Hickory Stick describes the district’s decision: “A simple motion at the June 1955 board meeting to ‘discontinue segregation of race or color’ put an end to a complex problem.”
There were only few integrated students in the first couple of years. The Jenks community already had an all-black school established in Tulsa called Rentie Grove, and their African American students migrated to Jenks after their school was forced to shut down.
Rentie Grove School closed in 1955, the same year after the Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. According to an Article written in the Tulsa World titled “Rentie Grove’s Demise”, Rentie Grove was one of a number of all-black communities and towns that sprang up across the state around the turn of the century in 1904. A school, two churches, and a gasoline station made up the community.
Other than the church, remnants of Rentie Grove are few. A cemetery, tended by the Renties’ grandson, holds the remains of many of the original land owners and their descendants. A few stones from the foundation of the schoolhouse are now kept in a display case at Jenks East Middle School.
So, as I flipped through the mid 50’s and early 60’s it was easy to point out one or two African American faces on every picture page of the yearbook who most likely transferred to Jenks from Rentie Grove. However, when I searched further through the 70’s there were no African Americans to be found. Where did they all go?
The Tulsa World further explains how the all black community, Rentie Grove, was destroyed as well as why most of the community moved out over the course of two years until few were left in the 70’s.
“The school’s closing in 1955 was the death knell for the community. In black settlements like Rentie Grove, schools were one of the most attractive features to former slaves, who wanted more than freedom for their children,” says Langston University historian Currie Ballard in the Tulsa World.
As Rentie Grove declined, suburban housing additions and school districts encroached on the community. Land prices around the original allotments skyrocketed. Many of the town’s original settlers moved to Tulsa for work. Much of the campus of Jenks East schools stands on what was once Rentie Grove.
The 90’s represented a sort of cultural awakening. They had an organization involving black students at Jenks called “African American Society”. When I saw the photos that they had in that society, I saw that they were doing things that Jenks’ Black Student Union today has not even scratched the surface of yet. They had karaoke nights, they had talent shows, they performed at pep assemblies, and their meetings talked about their culture. They were very similar to Black Student Union.
Now we look towards the 2000’s where Jenks has a Black Student Union. There are more open ideals. Jenks has African Americans who can live in the Jenks community, and make a difference within their school. People of color are on the football team, they are Miss JHS, and they are on the honor roll because they are able to take advantage of that opportunity.
Looking back on history for me was hard. It is like when you remember something tragic that happened such as racism or segregation, and you think, “Yeah, obviously I know that’s apart of history. I know how bad that was.” But it doesn’t really hit you personally that something of that nature could happen in the very spot that you are standing in until you see the pictures, and you see how it happened, and then you visualize it. You just don’t want to think about it.
I don’t want to think about Jenks as a racist community who integrated African Americans by pushing them out of Rentie Grove and taking their land, even though they thought they were doing the rightful thing by law, while performing blackface plays. They put up barriers for that culture to flourish among them. I used to attend Jenks East Elementary and learned how to play foursquare without knowing the campus’ painful backstory from when it used to be an all-black school surrounded by African American culture. I don’t want to think about it, yet I wrote a whole article over it. So there you go… sort of a painful enlightenment.