Emerson High School, in Oklahoma City, is a survivor. Built in 1911, just a few years after Oklahoma was granted statehood, the proud brick school survived both the Pei Plan of the 1960s that demolished many older structures in an urban revitalization project that never came to completion, and the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995, which the school overlooks.
Like many schools, Emerson has undergone many renovations both large and small over its tenure, but the traces of its past are all still there. 1912 newspapers are still stuffed into the walls for insulation. Whiteboards are laid over painted chalk boards which were laid in turn over slates and older slates.
Another remodel is underway there now, and it is in the course of this that Emerson made national news when workers, prying up the old white- and blackboards, found a substantial glimpse into the past. Four classrooms, under layers of glue and particle board, still had slate blackboards, nearly intact and decorated with chalk drawings and exercises. From 1917.
The revealed art and inscriptions are vivid, as compelling as cave paintings. There are colorful drawings of trees and children, of pilgrims, turkeys, and ships (the boards were covered in November, right around Thanksgiving). There is a paraphrased excerpt from the Pledge of Allegiance in elegant handwriting, reading “I give my head, my heart, and my life to my God and One nation indivisible with justice for all.” (The currently common Pledge dates back only to 1954, and as a whole has only been federally recognized since 1942)
Signs of the era are perhaps the most interesting part of the whole discover. A vocabulary list on one uncovered board includes the word ‘whoa,’ reminding us that in 1917, horses were still as common as cars on Oklahoma City’s streets. There are rules for keeping clean that include directions for pumping water. And a math exercise that’s so far undecipherable.
One of the boards is signed ‘We This Day Give to This Room Slate Blackboards. By R.J. Scott Custodian, Dec 4th 1917.’ This is very likely the man who chose not to erase these final displays of classwork and art, and 2015 owes him, along with the teachers and students of 1917, a debt of gratitude.