When Oklahoma City civil rights and education icon Thelma Parks died at age 96 last week, I was under the weather and did not have the energy to create a post. I had not previously pre-written an obituary for Parks (as I had for T. Boone Pickens), and other journalists like Ben Felder of The Oklahoman were up to the task at the time.
But I knew what I did have on my phone: a series of photographs and an audio file that contained what might be the final media interview Thelma Parks conducted during her influential life as an educator and Oklahoma City Public Schools board member.
How I had come to interview a 96-year-old Parks involved being in the right place at the right time. In an effort to find sources for stories I was working on this summer, I had wandered to the State Capitol on July 29 for a series of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s bill-signing ceremonies.
As I entered the Capitol’s second floor, however, I quickly realized I would not be sneaking an impromptu interview with the governor that day. Hundreds of Oklahomans from virtually every background were in a line that snaked down the Capitol’s cluttered corridors, all waiting with legislators to reach Stitt for a photo-op and a handshake. Unsettled by the packed hallway, I received permission to enter the governor’s blue conference room and mull my interview options.
Immediately, I saw Stitt stand from his ceremonial desk and approach a distinguished senior in a wheelchair who was accompanied by family members and Rep. Avery Frix (R-Muskogee). The woman looked familiar, but I could not place her. My friend, T. Sheri Dickerson, was seated nearby, and I asked if she could identify the woman for me.
“That’s Thelma Parks,” Dickerson said, applauding lightly as Stitt signed HB 2311, which will name a highway section of US-64 Business after Avalon Reese, a former Muskogee City Council member and a sister of Thelma Reese Parks.
Thelma Parks: ‘Be patient’ with school children
A few minutes after we had both exited the governor’s conference room, I found myself in the hallway with Thelma Parks and her family. I asked if she would be willing to offer any thoughts or advice about the state of education in Oklahoma.
“Treat people like people,” she said. “I want the teachers to be mindful that there are many kids who do not have the parental guidance that they should have at home. Be patient with them. Be patient with all of them, black, white, blue or polka dot. They need to be treated fairly and honestly.”
Parks said she enjoyed meeting Stitt.
“He said he was impressed with me and all the contributions that I had made, and so I thanked him for it,” the Muskogee native said.
Parks graduated from Langston University with an elementary education degree in 1945. She was among the first black teachers to teach at OKCPS’ first integrated school, Truman Elementary. Voters elected Parks to the OKCPS school board in 1987, where she served until 2009. Toward the end of our conversation, she discussed the district in which she broke barriers.
“I love Oklahoma City Public Schools. I want the leaders of the schools to do the best job they can do,” she said. “At points, it looks like it’s not going that direction. At points, it looks like it’s going some other place. But I just hope that they will reverse themselves, come back to the fold and do the things that they need to do to get our kids educated.”
At the end of our brief conversation, I told Parks it was an honor to meet her. She said she had no complaints about her life.
“God has been good to me,” she said.
Services for Thelma Parks have been announced for 11 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18, at Fairview Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.