Chalkboard drawings from nearly a century ago were uncovered in the walls of a downtown Oklahoma City school. The nearly perfectly preserved drawings at Emerson High School were found over the winter holidays, and announced by Oklahoma City Public Schools earlier this month. Colorful sketches of flowers, an art lesson on perspective featuring trees with a fence, a calendar, and cursive writing from 1917 follow the discovery last June of chalkboard drawings from the same era, which all seem to be deliberately covered as a time capsule.
Last summer, I visited Emerson High School for Hyperallergic to photograph the first group of chalkboard drawings, which were dated November 30 and December 4, 1917. At the time, Sherry Read, a math teacher at Emerson who uses one of the classrooms, explained to me that Emerson is “the oldest school still in existence in Oklahoma City as a school.” The 1895 brick building weathered decades of development in the area, including a never-completed 1960s plan by I. M. Pei that resulted in the demolishing of numerous old structures, and the Murrah Building bombing in 1995 just next door.
The additional chalkboards hiding behind layers of newer instructional boards were unearthed this winter during the ongoing renovations. One of the chalkboards includes the date December 10, 1917, suggesting they were covered while the early 20th-century students were on their own winter holiday. The first group of chalkboards included several Thanksgiving-related illustrations, and the children growing up in the state, which was only a decade-old, might have felt some connection to the pioneering pilgrims.
This was an era when the word “whoa” was still used in classroom vocabulary, puzzles like “how many pecks are in two bushels” were standard busy work, and horses plodded the streets outside. Likewise, these chalkboards suggest the contemporary life of the students, including a chalk map of Indian Territory, with detailed territory lines for the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes, as well as the new “white settlers.”
The slate surfaces are too delicate to remove from the walls in which they are embedded, so Oklahoma City Public Schools is looking at creative ways to preserve them, while maintaining the daily use of the classrooms. NPR affiliate KGOU reported that in July, district officials voted to cover the drawings to protect them, and some may be displayed beneath Plexiglas. Scott Randall, the school’s chief capital projects officer, told NewsOK that the school plans to “selectively uncover some of the chalk drawings so they can be viewed on an ongoing basis.” In this way, current students at the school can visually time travel back to the life and lessons of students of the past who spent their days in these same rooms.
Emerson High School is at 715 North Walker, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
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