Ruth Rolfe was 14 years old when she saw a story on the evening news about a group of students participating in sit-ins to protest policies of segregation. Inspired to action, she told her parents she wanted to get involved. It was 1958 in Oklahoma City, and Rolfe’s father, actively engaged in the NAACP, connected his only child with civil rights activist Clara Luper. Rolfe would spend the next three years advocating for Black community members to have access to formerly white-only restaurants, amusement parks, swimming pools and other community resources.
Rolfe would take lessons learned from powerful civil rights activists, including Luper, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., her parents and other local leaders, to form her own life as an advocate for equity and equality. Her careers with the Community Action Agency and as a diversity officer with Cox Communications and her volunteer efforts for causes like voter education and access for people with disabilities, inspired by her son Jarvis who has Down syndrome, were sparked in the young teen’s eyes and heart, desiring to affect positive change.
The sit-in movement
What stands out most for Rolfe about the sit-in movement in Oklahoma City is the spirit and camaraderie among the students and the loving leadership from Luper.
During the summer, the various teams of local youth would participate in sit-ins six days a week. During the school year, the work continued on Saturdays. The students divided into teams and walked to various restaurants that served whites only, protesting peacefully by sitting at lunch counters or tables, waiting to be served.
“We really just wanted to sit at a restaurant and have a hamburger and a Coke,” said Rolfe. “It was frustrating, seeing other people have access to what we didn’t just because of the color of our skin.”
But there was much more to the movement than the public demonstrations. The students met weekly at Luper’s home to learn history, the importance of which was emphasized often by the students’ disciplined leader, and receive training in non-violence. There was strategy and precision behind every move the group made.
“She was tenacious,” said Rolfe of Luper. “She always expected us to do our best. She taught us to speak well, she included prayer in what we did, she did not mind speaking up and speaking out. She was very brave.”
Rolfe wasn’t afraid during the sit-ins, mostly because the students traveled in a group and were trained in responding non-violently when words or actions escalated among staff or patrons. When the sit-ins became intense, the group sang freedom songs, which kept them grounded and focused and gave an outlet for their anxiety. The Oklahoma City group was not subjected to as much violence as they witnessed in other parts of the country, where youth protesters were met with water hoses and dogs. But the work was not without repercussions.
“I was arrested, oh, a couple of times,” Rolfe recalls. “We were not put behind bars but taken to the police station and kept in a group.”
Rolfe’s father, along with an attorney and other leaders from the NAACP, would arrive to get the students and leaders released.
One of Rolfe’s favorite parts of her work with the group of youth was the opportunity to travel to the NAACP national conventions, for which the organization and Luper chartered a bus. For some students, it was their first trip away from home. Rolfe attended conventions in Indianapolis and Atlanta and participated in the March on Washington in 1963.
Rolfe relished traveling to new places, witnessing presentations by leaders in the Civil Rights Movement and hearing those leaders discuss strategy in various meetings. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. signed Rolfe’s high school yearbook in Atlanta in 1962.
Over the course of Rolfe’s three years participating in sit-ins, she witnessed some restaurants changing their policies and opening to Black community members. As more restaurants desegregated, the group also focused on gaining access to amusement parks and pools.
Rolfe’s experiences as a student activist and the influence of Luper and others remained strong as she began her career, first working for Oklahoma City’s Community Action Agency during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Rolfe held a number of positions, helping organize community members in low-income areas to address issues in their communities. Rolfe wrote grants and reports to secure funding for the nonprofit organization and enjoyed working with a variety of agencies around the metro to accomplish their mission.
“In one of the communities, there was not a park for Black children to play in,” recalls Rolfe. “Really the only playground equipment was at the school, and that was locked after school, so we tried to find resources to provide a park for the children to play in.”
Rolfe shifted gears in the 1980s to work for Cox Communications Oklahoma, from which she retired a few years ago. She began her career with Cox in the employee training and development sector, then transitioned to the diversity training field and would write the first Affirmative Action Program for the Oklahoma office.
The corporate office provided diversity training templates, and at the local level, Rolfe and her teammates developed and implemented ways to bring them to life for their employees in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The training raised the level of awareness among employees about the prevalence of racism and how to address it.
“Training was part of it, but we also looked at personnel policies and procedures, like hiring and promotions,” said Rolfe. “Training can’t change a person’s heart, but it can open their eyes and [make them] more accepting of people from other cultures and backgrounds. When you have policies in place and hold a leadership team accountable, it provides avenues to be open.”
Beyond the basic diversity training, Rolfe shared personal experiences, which helped employees internalize the team’s message and acknowledge how racism impacted those around them.
When Rolfe retired from Cox, one of the company’s technicians, who was also an artist, presented her with a chalk drawing depicting an experience she regularly shared in trainings.
As a young child, Rolfe and a cousin were visiting their grandparents in Athens, Texas. During a trip to the local courthouse, Rolfe and her cousin snuck a drink out of the water fountain labeled “white only.” The drawing of that rebellious act by two little girls and the fact that her story so impacted the technician mean much to Rolfe.
“People would get teary in some of the classes,” remembers Rolfe. “They would open up and talk about their own prejudices, both Black and white. We had an opportunity to help people feel what the training was about, not just look at it from an academic perspective.”
Balancing career and children
Rolfe was a full-time working mom of two boys, and a single mom when she and their father divorced. She’s quick to credit the boys’ grandparents for helping with school drop off and other responsibilities.
Rolfe’s older son John is now deceased, but she remains connected to him through two grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Her younger son Jarvis, who turns 50 this month, has Down syndrome and lives with Rolfe.
“He is the joy of my life,” said Rolfe. “When he was a baby and I was going to the pediatrician with him, I was bemoaning that here I have this child who is different. The doctor said, ‘Just treat him like any other kid and he will be OK.’ So that’s been my attitude.”
Jarvis attended Casady School, was a Special Olympian in track and field and now bowls regularly with a team of coworkers at Meadows Center for Opportunity, where he has worked since age 19. Rolfe feels fortunate that Jarvis is high-functioning, has developed his own network through church and with family and has a very active life. Knowing not all children or adults with disabilities have that same support system, through a variety of groups, Rolfe has been an advocate for others with disabilities, highlighting the need for access to things like transportation, recreational activities and medical attention.
Rolfe and Jarvis share cooking duties and chores, and Rolfe says they meet in the kitchen at mealtimes between their independent activities and obligations, she volunteers with the food and clothing ministry at her church and serving as a board member for the Oklahoma State Council on Aging and he working with his church’s men’s group, singing with the men’s chorus and serving as an usher.
Is it possible to end racism?
Rolfe believes the division in our country fueled by racism is founded at least partially on the idea that providing equity and equality to certain groups or races negates it for others.
“Jarvis is different, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have access to what I have access to,” explains Rolfe. “Women are different, but that didn’t mean they shouldn’t have access to vote. My access does not take away your access. Giving justice and equal rights doesn’t mean they are taken away from any other.”
When Rolfe considers that racial injustice and systemic racism are still so prevalent, she doesn’t believe the fight is hopeless, but she does hone in on the word “still.”
“Still. We’re still doing this,” said Rolfe. “Maybe in different ways and levels, but the root cause is still there. Legislation may put a Band-Aid on it but it hasn’t addressed as much as we’d like the heart of the people. Whatever we can begin to do to reach the heart of individuals is what is most helpful in the long run. Laws and legislation may mean I have to tolerate you, but they don’t mean I have to care about you.”
Always a strong advocate of non-violence as taught by Luper, Rolfe believes consistent, civil interactions are key for long-term change and are the responsibility of every individual and family.
For parents, introspectively looking at who their kids play with, what the family is reading or watching on TV and whether they are discussing social justice in the home can set a strong example of valuing anti-racist behavior. Having conversations about racism within families or friend groups can be uncomfortable but can also promote growth.
“You don’t always have to agree or see things the same way, but be open to how you see it and why,” said Rolfe of conversations about racism. “Dig deeply enough and you’ll find more common ground. Parents want the best for their children, no matter what color.”
In addition to visiting local museums, playing in the backyard and crafting together, Rolfe talks with her great-grandchildren about racism. As Rolfe watches other young people in the metro responding to systemic racism and calling for change, she has some advice from her own teen years to share.
“Young people [should] look at solutions beyond the protest,” advises Rolfe. “Marching is good; we marched a lot. But we have to march with purpose.”
That purpose begins with celebrating differences, understanding and appreciating the beauty of diversity within the community.
“Different does not mean better or worse; it’s not a value judgment,” said Rolfe. “Different is good; that’s why we have rainbows and seasons. Different should not be looked at as a reason to treat