Ralph Ellison and African American History in Oklahoma City
This driving tour or heritage trail offers an exploration of the life of National Book Award winner Ralph Ellison in his hometown of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The tour begins at Ellison's birthplace and moves throughout the downtown area before moving on to sites around the city that are also related to the life of Ellison and other African American residents in the early 20th century. The authors of this trail used Sanborn maps, city directories, and other resources to identify the location of important Black institutions such as schools and churches, some of which have been demolished to create interstate highways. This trail can be used to travel to all or some of the sites identified. This trail can also serve as an educational resource accessible from any location and it is downloadable as a printable PDF. African American novelist Ralph Waldo Ellison originally studied music and art but was drawn eventually to the world of literature. Ellison spent seven years writing Invisible Man and although it was the only novel published in his lifetime, it gained him a place as a respected American writer and remains one of the central texts of the twentieth-century canon. Born on March 1, 1913, at 405 First Street in Oklahoma City, Ellison was the son of Lewis Alfred Ellison and Ida Millsap Ellison, southerners who were only one generation away from slavery. Transplanted in a western state smacking of new promise, they named their son after the 19th century American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. After his father’s death from a work-related injury in 1916, Ellison’s mother moved her two sons to various parts of the young city, supporting the family in menial jobs that often forced her to rent small apartments and even servants’ quarters in both the segregated black and white sections of town. At the age of eight, Ellison began learning the trumpet, an instrument that sparked his interest in jazz music, which was coming of age in the early 1920s. By high school, Ellison played lead trumpet in the high school band and received musical instruction from Zelia Breaux, who he would later refer to as like “a second mother” to him. In Deep Deuce’s thriving jazz clubs of the time, the young Ellison received a more informal education by listening to touring greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie as well as local legends like the Blue Devils and Jimmy Rushing. In 1932, Ellison graduated with honors from Douglass High School in Oklahoma City and by 1933 he had decided to study music as a vocation. He enrolled in the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington’s well-known African American university in Alabama, to pursue a music degree. It was there, however, that he met Professor Morteza Drexel Sprague, his most important teacher at Tuskegee. Professor Sprague exposed Ellison to literature, masterworks like T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the works of writers like Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Joyce, and Stein, as well as currents in contemporary Black artistic thought. Ellison did not graduate from Tuskegee, but in the spirit of the protagonist he created in his classic novel, Invisible Man, moved to Harlem, the center of the burgeoning black arts movement, in 1936, where he met influential black writers like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. It was in Harlem, as well, that Ellison tried his hand at the fine arts, dabbling in sculpture as he interned in the studio of a preeminent African American sculptor, Richmond Barthé After years of work in a variety of prose genres, including the essay and short story, Ellison finished Invisible Man in April of 1952 to mostly admiring reviews. It became an instant bestseller, receiving the National Book Award the following year. One of the most important and definitive novels in American literature, the novel centers on—and illuminates—the Black experience in America with clarity and wit. According to New York Times contributor Adam Bradley, “Through his protagonist’s voice, Ellison was making the audacious claim that he, a young Black writer in segregated America, could conceive a young Black character with the capacity to speak to the universalities of human experience through the dogged particulars of his own” (2021). In the years since its publication, Ralph Ellison’s classic has resonated across social and racial divides.
African American History