Cheryl Elizabeth Brown Wattley, professor and director of experiential education at UNT Dallas College of Law, won the Oklahoma Book Award, Non-Fiction, for her first book, A Step Toward Brown v. Board of Education: Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher and her Fight to End Segregation, at the 26th Annual Book Awards ceremony in Oklahoma City, OK.
Wattley’s book captures the story of a young woman named Ada Lois Sipuel who was denied admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law because she was African American. Sipuel’s story and her legal battle against a segregated educational system is situated within the history of civil rights litigation and race-related jurisprudence in the state of Oklahoma and in the nation. Ada Lois Sipuel (who married Warren Fisher a year before filing her law suit) sprang from the tradition of determination of black Oklahomans who had survived slavery to stake a claim in the territory. Hers was a test case organized by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to go all the way to the Supreme Court and, as a precedent, strike another blow against “separate but equal” public education. Fisher served as both a litigant, with Thurgood Marshall for counsel, and later, a litigator; and both a plaintiff and an advocate for the NAACP.
“Writing this book became a personal journey for me,” explains Wattley. “Ada Lois volunteered, she literally stepped forward to be a NAACP plaintiff, knowing that she would face threats of personal violence, years of uncertainty, and even more years of a life under a spotlight. Her reward for winning this case would be going to law school in a foreign environment, sitting for the first time in her life in classrooms with white students. I wondered whether I would have had that courage, whether the vision of equality would burn within me as it had for Ada Lois. I had to learn her story, not just the events, but the journey.”
Often overlooked by more publicized legal cases, Ada Lois was the only female NAACP plaintiff to pursue her case all the way to the United States Supreme Court before Brown. Because of her victory before the Supreme Court, the states of Arkansas and Delaware immediately desegregated their graduate programs. Months later Oklahoma, under court order, desegregated its graduate programs, except for its law school. Thousands of African Americans enrolled on college and university campuses as a direct result of the Sipuel case.
To learn about Ada Lois’ case, Wattley turned to a number of sources: the court pleadings including a previously undiscovered transcript of the trial about the “equality” of the sham law school established just for her; original documents and correspondence; newspaper articles; NAACP files; and interviews with family, law school classmates and former students.
Cheryl Brown Wattley joined the UNT Dallas College of Law inaugural faculty in early 2014, after serving on the OU College of Law faculty from 2006 through 2013 as professor of law and director of clinical education. Wattley wrote A Step Toward Brown v. Board of Education while living and teaching in Oklahoma. She also wrote and produced a theatrical presentation about Ada Lois’ battle for equality which was performed by OU law students before a variety of audiences, including the Oklahoma Conference of Judges.
At UNT Dallas College of Law, Professor Wattley teaches Criminal Law, courses in professional skills and professionalism, is creator of both the innovative Louis A. Bedford, Jr. Mentorship Program and sixteen community engagement partnerships, and serves as director of experiential education. She was named a “Best Lawyers in Dallas” in the May 2015 issue of D Magazine for the Criminal Defense: White Collar category.
Professor Wattley graduated from Smith College, cum laude, with high honors in Sociology. She received her Juris Doctorate degree from Boston University College of Law, where she was a Martin Luther King, Jr. fellow and recipient of the Community Service Award. She began her legal career as an Assistant United States Attorney in the District of Connecticut representing the United States in civil litigation. Through her actions, the United States participated as litigating amicus curiae in Connecticut ARC v. Thorne, the lawsuit that led to the entry of a consent decree overhauling the system for serving persons with mental retardation in Connecticut.
Wattley later transferred to the United States Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Texas, located in Dallas, where she focused on the prosecution of white collar crime and served as Chief of the Economic Crime Unit. Professor Wattley then went into private litigation practice, where her work included white-collar criminal defense, civil rights litigation, federal and state criminal defense, and post-conviction proceedings.
The Oklahoma Book Award program is sponsored by the Oklahoma Center for the Book (OCB), a state affiliate of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. The Center promotes the past, current, and future works of Oklahoma authors; promotes the literary heritage of the state; and encourages reading for pleasure by Oklahomans of all ages. Books considered for the award must have an Oklahoma-based theme, or entrants (authors, illustrators, or designers) must live or have lived in Oklahoma. Books eligible for the 2015 awards were published between January 1 and December 31, 2014.