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Century-Old School Chalkboard Drawings Offer a History Lesson

1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings of pilgrims discovered at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
Exterior of Emerson High School, facing the classrooms where the chalkboards were discovered
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
Multiplication and music lessons

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?

1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
An alternative version of the pledge of allegiance
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
A tree drawing and some “busy work” (including “draw a tree” and 2 bushels are _ pecks?”

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.

1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
A girl in 1917 dress blowing bubbles
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
A girl in 1917 dress feeding a Thanksgiving turkey, and a calendar being changed over from November to December
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
Thanksgiving-themed illustrations
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
Drawing of a log cabin
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City, including an illustration of Plymouth Rock
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
Math exercises and student names
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
A Thanksgiving turkey and a math exercise
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
A version of the pledge of allegiance, and a date for the installation of the new boards
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
A mysterious math exercise
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
Red stars
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings of pilgrims at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
Rules to keep clean, and a math exercise
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
An erased chalkboard with traces of writing
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City
1917 chalkboard drawings at Emerson High School, Oklahoma City

Emerson High School is at 715 North Walker, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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