Her name does not resonate like that of Rosa Parks, and she did not garner the kind of national attention that a group of black students did when they took seats at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960. But Clara Luper was a seminal figure in the sit-ins of the civil rights movement.
Clara Luper in 1971.
Ms. Luper, who led one of the first sit-ins — at a drugstore in Oklahoma City 18 months before the Greensboro action — died Wednesday at her home in Oklahoma City, her daughter Marilyn Hildreth said. She was 88.
Ms. Luper was a history teacher at Dunjee High School in 1957 when she agreed to become adviser to the Oklahoma City N.A.A.C.P.’s youth council. The youngsters asked what they could do to help the movement.
On Aug. 19, 1958, Ms. Luper led three other adult chaperons and 14 members of the youth council into the Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City, where they took seats at the counter and asked for Coca-Colas. Denied service, they refused to leave until closing time. They returned on Saturday mornings for several weeks.
The sit-ins received local press coverage. Eventually the Katz chain agreed to integrate lunch counters at its 38 stores in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Over the next six years, the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter held sit-ins that led to the desegregation of almost every eating establishment in Oklahoma City.
“The actions that Ms. Luper and those youngsters took at the Katz Drug Store inspired the rank and file of the N.A.A.C.P. and activists on college campuses across the country,” Roslyn M. Brock, the group’s national chairwoman, said Friday.
Ms. Luper’s activism extended beyond the sit-ins. A week after that first protest, 17 white churches in Oklahoma City let members of her youth group attend services. At another church, a pastor asked two youngsters to leave, The Associated Press reported at the time. “God did not intend Negroes and whites to worship together,” he told them.
Ms. Luper was arrested 26 times at civil rights protests. Now a street is named after her in Oklahoma City, and flags flew Friday at half-staff in her honor.
Born Clara Mae Shepard on May 3, 1923, to Ezell and Isabel Shepard, Ms. Luper grew up near Hoffman, Okla. Her father was a brick worker, and her mother was a maid. “When she was a child, her brother got sick and they wouldn’t treat him at the hospital,” Ms. Hildreth said. “That really triggered her.”
Ms. Luper is also survived by another daughter, Chelle Wilson; a son, Calvin; a sister, Oneita Brown; five grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild. Her husband, Bert Luper, died before her.
Ms. Luper graduated from Langston University in 1944. In 1951 she earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Oklahoma, where she was the first black student admitted to a graduate history program. She taught at Oklahoma City high schools until she retired in 1991.
On the blog Stories in America, she said her father “had never been able to sit down and eat a meal in a decent restaurant.”
“He used to tell us that someday he would take us to dinner and to parks and zoos,” she said. “And when I asked him when was someday, he would always say, ‘Someday will be real soon,’ as tears ran down his cheeks.”