OKLAHOMA CITY — Century-old chalkboard drawings were revealed earlier this month during renovations at Emerson High School in Oklahoma City. Forgotten since 1917, lost beneath the accumulated layers of modern smart boards and wall-covering blackboards, the drawings of Thanksgiving turkeys and multiplication exercises look as fresh as if they were sketched yesterday.
I toured the four rooms of drawings amidst the construction work with Sherry Read, who has taught math at Emerson for over 20 years and uses one of the classrooms where the old schoolwork was discovered. She explained that they know the drawings are from 1917 as in each room there’s a signed and dated description of when they were covered. For example in “Lunch Room 3” (the school at this time didn’t have a cafeteria), a cursive text reads: “We this day give to this room slate blackboards,” and is dated December 4, 1917. “It’s the oldest school still in existence in Oklahoma City as a school,” Read said. Also found were 1912 newspapers stuck in the walls for insulation in the 1911 school building.
The covering of the chalkboards started November 30, 1917, so each room along with its elementary schoolwork has a Thanksgiving drawing, whether a girl in 1917 dress feeding a turkey, a Mayflower ship, or a family of pilgrims. “I could see them relating the pilgrims to being pioneers in Oklahoma,” Read said. She noted that 1917 was only 10 years after Oklahoma got statehood, and just over two decades since the 1889 Land Run when many of the students’ parents likely arrived in the frontier state.
Emerson itself started on a Land Run claim, and the drawings refer subtly to the time period, such as the inclusion of the word “whoa” in vocabulary when cars were still joined by horses and buggies on the Oklahoma City streets, and a long list of tips to keep clean when water was pumped into houses before plumbing. Another has an early version of the Pledge of Allegiance: “I give my head, my heart, and my life to my God and one nation indivisible with justice for all.” And a list of “busy work” asks this puzzle: how many pecks are in two bushels?
That the drawings survive in such beautiful condition is remarkable, and it almost seems like the school in 1917 intended to preserve the drawings as a sort of time capsule. Even as a young state, Oklahoma was already interested in sending a message to the future. The 1913 Century Chest was a grand time capsule event in the state, and it was finally opened in 2013 to unveil period clothes, a gramophone, letters, photographs, and other ephemera in perfect condition. That Emerson still stands with its old bricks is also remarkable. “We went through a time in Oklahoma City when we destroyed a lot of our buildings for progress and parking lots,” Read said.
Much of Oklahoma City’s early 20th-century structures were demolished as part of the Pei Plan. This 1960s urban redevelopment project based on a redesign from architect I.M. Pei was never completely realized, leaving instead huge vacant lots that have only recently been filled. Read pointed out that Emerson also overlooks the site of the Murrah Building, which was bombed in 1995 and rattled much of the downtown infrastructure.
The Oklahoma City Public Schools District is now looking for approaches to their preservation in collaboration with the MAPS for Kids Trust. Some drawings are still being deciphered, like a mysterious circle with multiplication exercises that has Read, who is math teacher, intrigued, and she hopes to use the drawings to emphasize the history and importance of education to her students.
Emerson is an alternative school, and some of the students there are the first in their family to receive high school diplomas. She sees the drawings as a portal to the past when kids were also struggling, likely doing farm work alongside their classwork or just trying to stay clean without running water.
Emerson High School is at 715 North Walker, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.