On January 12, 1948, a one-page unanimous per curiam opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court, Sipuel v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Oklahoma, ordered the University of Oklahoma to admit Ada Sipuel to its law school. The university had conceded that Sipuel qualified for law school admission except for her race. At the time, Oklahoma had no state law school for students other than whites, and state law made it a misdemeanor to teach or attend integrated classes. Administrators were subject to a fine of $50 a day for violations, and all students in such classrooms were subject to fines of $20 a day.
Sipuel was issued four days after oral argument. Thurgood Marshall argued on behalf of Sipuel. The Court held:
The petitioner is entitled to secure legal education afforded by a state institution. To this time, it has been denied her although during the same period many 633*633 white applicants have been afforded legal education by the State. The State must provide it for her in conformity with the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and provide it as soon as it does for applicants of any other group. Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1938).
The case reversed Lee v. State of Mississippi and pointed the way for Brown v. Board of Education six years later, but did not find that segregation was unconstitutional. Thus Sipuel did not immediately open doors for black law school applicants throughout the U.S., and Heman Sweatt needed the decision of Sweatt v. Painter two years later to obtain admission to the University of Texas School of Law. At the time, the Texas State Constitution prohibited integrated education.
After Sipuel was decided, the Oklahoma Legislature created a separate law school exclusively for her to attend. Langston University School of Law was set up in the State Capitol's Senate rooms and made operational in five days, setting the stage for arguments that its offerings were not substantially equal to the education offered white students at University of Oklahoma College of Law.
Sipuel refused to attend Langston University School of Law, setting the stage for a new round of litigation. The Oklahoma Supreme Court found the two law schools to be equal, but when an appeal was filed in the U.S. Supreme Court, Oklahoma's Attorney General, faced with the same nine Supreme Court justices that had earlier decided Sipuel in her favor, chose not to argue that the Langston law school was equal to the University of Oklahoma's law school. Sipuel was admitted to the University of Oklahoma Law School in June, 1949. Langston University College of Law school closed twelve days later.
In her autobiography, Sipuel describes being the first person of color in the law school, and the only female in the law school's summer class of 300. She was assigned a chair in the last row of seats with a pole on the back holding a large printed sign that said COLORED. She was required to study in a separate area in the library, and to eat in a separate chained and guarded area of the law school cafeteria. But she observed that many law students were sympathetic to her, and some would crawl under the chain and eat with her when the guards were not around.
Sipuel practiced law in Chickasha, Oklahoma and became head of the Social Studies Department at Langston University. Following her retirement from Langston University, she worked as corporate counsel for Automation Research System Limited in Alexandria, Virginia, the second largest African American owned computer corporation in the country at that time. In 1992, three years before her death, Sipuel was appointed to the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents.
Art: Painting of Sipuel on display in the Oklahoma State Capitol, dedicated 2007. Artist Mitsuno Ishii Reedy