Story by Anna McDougal, OSU Library intern
The Cowboys in Every County team took a trip to Okfuskee County to meet with longtime educator and Oklahoma State graduate Shirley Nero. Having come full circle back to her birthplace, Shirley took time with us to reflect on her educational journey and recount memories from her childhood.
About Okfuskee County and Clearview
Okfuskee County was originally Quapaw and Osage land until 1825 and was later taken over by the Creeks who began to build towns in the area. After the Civil War when the Creeks freed their African American slaves, a handful of all-black communities developed nearby, and a few of them, although extremely small, are still in existence today.
As with many counties in Oklahoma, oil and gas production in the early 1900s led to a population increase. That leveled off and started to decline by the 1930s. Also like most of Oklahoma, farming and ranching have been a longtime source of income for the county.
In case you didn’t know, one well-known native of Okfuskee County is folk singer Woody Guthrie, and a festival is held in his honor every year in his hometown of Okemah.
Clearview, Oklahoma, has a total area of less than a quarter mile, so you could say it’s pretty small. It remains one of the county’s thirteen predominantly-black towns (of the original fifty), and despite its tiny size, the town still hosts an annual rodeo. Although the population spiked at just over 600 in 1907, by the 1930s it started to plummet, and then the Great Depression almost wiped it out entirely as people fled for better living elsewhere. Today, the town is home to less than fifty residents.
Shirley Nero was born at home in Clearview, Oklahoma, in 1949 to parents who hadn’t expected to have children, and she was the first of three daughters. During our chat, Shirley shared memories and details of her childhood, such as growing up without indoor plumbing or a phone. Life was harder but simpler then, and her neighbors all relied on one another, sharing resources like a big family. Although the educational system was segregated, the community stood together in daily life.
She and her family couldn’t go to the movies anytime they wanted to go, but they took advantage of the special days when the theater opened up for African American patrons. One day each year, the black schools in the area would bus the children to a theater in Okemah. Sadly for them, however, they were shown a film from the same movie series every year, and Shirley later received it as a gag gift from her sister.
Another memorable time in her young life occurred when the government purchased part of her family’s property and moved their house in order to lay a stretch of Interstate 40 on the land. From their front porch, Shirley and her family would watch the construction crews build the interstate.
In 1968, Shirley graduated high school and moved to Ada where she attended East Central State, majoring in home economics. In school, she had to remain strong-willed to keep looking and moving ahead through the discrimination of the time. She and her friends stood fast rather than taking the easy road, refusing to back down in times of adverse treatment. With assistance from a grant, along with her job at the student union, Shirley was able to pay her way through college. She met and married her husband while in Ada, and when she graduated in 1972, the couple moved to Sapulpa where Shirley was a teacher.
While teaching in Sapulpa, Shirley enrolled at Oklahoma State University to earn her master’s degree in history. She commuted back and forth, taking night classes each semester, graduating in 1992 with the joy of accomplishing another educational feat. She later left the Sapulpa school for Corum, Oklahoma, where she taught until her retirement in 2004. After her husband retired in 2011, the couple moved back to her hometown of Clearview where they reside still today.
Here are a few more images from our trip to Okfuskee County:
We’ve wrapped up interviewing for Cowboys in Every County, but we’ll continue to highlight our adventures on this blog. Check back often for more stories from the road.