Pawhuska school served as a gathering place

Kathryn SwanJC Correspondent

Editor’s Note: The compilation of this article on Pawhuska’s Black History was made possible through the collaboration of Rev. Travis and Edna Finley, members of the First Baptist Church South Congregation and Louise Red Corn.

Booker T. Washington School holds memories of one of Pawhuska’s most beloved institutions. Located on South Koh-Pah Street, BTW was the hub of black life in Osage County before integration shut it down in the 1950s. It was home to community meetings, church gatherings, music lessons and endless basketball.

In a 2007 interview by Louise Red Corn of the Barnsdall Times, the late Allen Shields said, “(BTW) was Praise Jesus and Praise that Ball.” The Booker T. Panthers were known as “kings of round ball,” regularly scoring 100 points against their opponents. Shields attributed their success to endless practice playfully encouraged by Principal Prof. Farthing who would throw out a white basketball (a hand-me-down from PHS) when the children arrived for school at 7:30 a.m., at noon and when school ended at 3 p.m.. The kids would play until dark — when it was time for chores and homework.

In 1951, BTW had risen to the top of the game in Oklahoma and qualified for Black Nationals in Pensacola, Fla. BTW triumphed through eight games before falling to a team from Chicago.

Shields was one of many BTW basketball players who had dual roles of performing with the school’s outstanding band which featured accomplished tuba, trombone, saxophone and trumpet players. He said, “Booker T. Washington meant more to black people than any other place (in Pawhuska). We were taught respect, diligence and honesty.”

Throughout the decades following the school’s closure, vandals pillaged and destroyed more than 100 trophies. The building was further decimated by scavengers who chipped away the school’s façade for souvenirs.

When Rev. Travis Finley brought his bride Edna to Pawhuska in 2003, he was heartbroken to see what had become of his beloved school. “It had become a dump,” remarked Finley who held the distinction of being one of Oklahoma’s first black All-American Basketball Players and was serving on the Pawhuska City Council. He and Edna were also knee-deep in rebuilding the then-faltering First Baptist Church South at Third and Prudom.

“We sweet-talked the late District 1 County Commissioner Clarence Brantley into sending heavy equipment up the hill to clear the rubble,” said Finley. “I tore up two of my riding lawnmowers helping clean up this site. With the county’s help, a park began to evolve.

“Former Sen. Joe Sweeden, who was a state representative at the time, donated $2,000 for new sidewalks and a playground. Pawhuska Boy Scouts built park benches.” Finley believes the potential is endless for the park. He’s hoping expansion could include tennis courts, a picnic area, and, just maybe, the old slab from his beloved school could be converted into a basketball court or two.

The black community credits Rev. Finley and Edna with spearheading the repurposing of the Booker T. Washington site as well as numerous other projects to preserve their rich history. In 1951, the couple created a tribute to the 1951 BTW basketball team “Field of Dreams.” Wood cutouts of the players were topped with grainy photographs of their faces that had been copied from old school yearbooks.

Many of these and other players achieved success in their careers. Several became ministers. Clarence Boyd rose to the level of Bishop. Calvin Cunningham earned a Ph.D in biology and became chairman of Oklahoma State University’s Biology Department.

CUTLINE/BOOKER T: In 1951, Rev. Travis and Edna Finley created a tribute to the Booker T. Washington Basketball Team who earned their way to Black Nationals in Pensacola, Florida. A-Team players honored were(Row 1 L-R) Marvin Thomas, Theodus “Dick” Filey, Alvin “Tricky Sam” Brown (who played like a Harlem Globetrotter), George “Big Shooba” McCurt, Clarence Boyd, Ray “Skipper” Finley, Melvin “Smoke” Ellison, Coaches Guest and Farthing, J.C. Oliver, Thurman Carthen, and Leroy Potts. (Row 2 included other well-known players who followed them) Jim Westbrooks, Calvin Cunningham, Ronnie Harris, Maurice Robison and Allen Shield.