A Woman to Remember: Zelma Lipscomb

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A Woman to Remember: Zelma Lipscomb

There are many African Americans who have crusaded for justice in America. Most have stayed out of the limelight, quietly going about their goal of achieving racial equality and a better country. One of them was Zelma Lipscomb, who I worked with at Long Beach Public Library.

Zelma Lipscomb, 2001. Author photo.

          Mrs. Lipscomb had many unsung accomplishments, as I later discovered. She was a founding member and once president of the Long Beach branch of the NAACP. She was instrumental in creating the Benevolent Club of Long Beach (the first activist group of its time which kept an eye on social and political issues which the local African community faced), she was active in the Council of Negro Women, the Long Beach Council of Churches, and the Fair Housing Foundation. As a board member of the Long Beach Human Relations Commission, she was sent by the city to attend Martin Luther King’s funeral in 1968. Zelma lived for the present and the future, she rarely spoke of the past, but it was the past that formed her and made her the dynamic individual she became. I decided to take a look into her early history and events that shaped the person she became.

          Zelma Alice Bean was born in Lawton, Comanche County, Oklahoma, on October 10, 1911. Most likely she was part Cherokee since there are many “Beans” on the Dawes rolls for 1898-1914. I haven’t been able to find information on her father, but Zelma was the eldest of a large family comprised of Texas born mother Ethel Pearl Reynolds Bean Robinson, who married Zelma’s stepfather Robert Robinson around 1918. There were sisters, Reaver born in 1913, and Jewel who entered the world in 1916. Half siblings included Murray (b. 1919), Mary (b. 1920), Montana (b. 1922), Tanner (b. 1923), Robert Jr. (b. 1926), Eyvonne (b. 1928) and Vermell (b. 1929).  With such a large family it’s no wonder she decided to escape the household by marrying 18-year-old Arthur Lipscomb in September 1927. Though census, marriage and school records allowed me to uncover family members and a little history, I turned to Lawton, Oklahoma, newspapers to find out what the African American community was experiencing in Zelma’s formative years.  I soon found a disturbing history; one Zelma grew up with.

           On April 9, 1916, 25-year-old African American Carl Dudley was pulled out of jail by a mob of 200 Lawton townsfolk. A rope was placed around his neck, and he was hauled down the jail steps and shot to death. Not content, the mob fastened the end of the rope to the axle of an automobile, which was standing close by, and at gun point made the driver drive up and down the streets of the city, trailing Dudley’s bloody body behind. Later the mutilated corpse was hanged on a telephone pole at the northeast corner of the city. The sheriff and his staff, who had tried to stop the unmasked mob, claimed they could not identify any of the perpetrators. What incited the attack was the killing of Patrolman James W. Hays by Carl Dudley the day before when Dudley confronted two officers over the treatment of an African American woman, Edna Davis.

          Police were called when the manager of the Midway Hotel complained Ms. Davis was loitering in front of his establishment.  Passing by, Dudley called out to the officers to stop manhandling her saying Ms. Davis had done nothing wrong. According to Officer Landis, Carl Dudley made a motion towards his hip pocket and Captain Landis drew his gun. Dudley ran, escaping into a nearby restaurant with the officers following. Landis said he saw Dudley draw his gun, forcing Landis to shoot through the window of the black owned eatery. Dudley then started shooting; Hays was hit. Dudley escaped from the rear of the restaurant while Landis continued firing at the fleeing man. Officer Landis was soon joined by others, including Jack Burns from nearby Ft. Sill who picked up the revolver Officer Hays had dropped and took several shots at Dudley. Carl Dudley fled to the cotton mill where he had once worked and asked the manager to take his gun because he didn’t want the mob to get him.  Surrendering, Dudley was arrested and taken to jail.

           One of the largest funerals ever experienced in Lawton was held for Officer James W. Hays. All businesses were closed to enable everyone to attend the funeral. Every flag in the city was hung at half-mast.  What of Carl Dudley?  His body was cut down the morning after his murder, taken to an undertaking parlor and turned over to his family for a quiet burial at an undisclosed site.

           A grand jury investigation into the mob attack on Carl Dudley was held in June 1916. The issue was not Dudley’s murder, but the mob attack on police headquarters which could have resulted in injury to officers.  The judge berated the citizens of Lawton telling them they needed to get over their “pioneer days” mentality where everyone had a gun, and it was permissible to take justice into their own hands.

          After Carl Dudley’s murder, none of the African Americans in Lawton gathered in protest. They lived in fear. It wasn’t the first mob killing of a black Lawton resident. But resentment festered. Five years later, seventy-five African Americans learning black shoe shiner Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting a white woman and hearing rumors he would be lynched, arrived at the Tulsa, Oklahoma jail to ensure Rowland’s safety. What resulted would go down in history as the “Tulsa race massacre.” Thirty-nine ended up dead, 26 black, and 13 white. The African American city of Greenwood was burned, and 10,000 black people left homeless.

          This was the racist history Zelma Lipscomb, and many more blacks, grew up with. She didn’t sit back in fear as those in Lawton with had done with Carl Dudley.  She became involved in improving conditions in her hometown, but she also had to deal with the financial hardships of the Great Depression. In 1937, she joined the exodus of many from Oklahoma, ending up in Long Beach, California. She attended school at night while working fulltime, eventually earning a high school diploma. Each week she mailed her paycheck home to her family in Lawton, who were determined to put one of their own through college. It was a sister, who suffered an accident and had to have a leg amputated, that was chosen to fulfill that dream.

          In 1975, Mrs. Lipscomb told reporter Linda Zink that she had found peace through religion. Faith in God had kept her going through the years: “I guess I’ve been fired up all my life. I started as a child in my church and I’ve been involved in community activities ever since.” (Press Telegram 2/9/1975) She believed in education and found the perfect place that exemplified learning when she joined the staff of Long Beach Public Library in 1940. Along the way she also accumulated nearly 60 units of college credit while still finding time for an exhausting number of community activities on top of a fulltime job.

          Though Zelma Lipscomb didn’t speak much of what I have uncovered, she enthusiastically spoke of attending Martin Luther King’s funeral in 1968. “It was the people, the positive encounters with people, that made the biggest impression on me. I remember a cab driver, a Caucasian cab driver, who was obviously very poor. All the way to the hotel they were playing Martin Luther King’s favorite hymns on the radio. When we got out, he refused to accept our money. He said it was the least he could do.” Back in Long Beach her phone rang off the hook night and day with people offering money or the use of their swimming pools for parties for African American youth.

          Zelma Lipscomb retired from Long Beach Public Library in 1975, a year after husband Arthur’s death. She hoped to spend more time with her 82-year-old mother Ethel, who lived with her, her sisters and nieces and nephews. She and her husband had no children. She said her days of public activism were behind her, but she was happy to accept a city council appointment to the library’s book committee and continue her work with other organizations. In later years she was honored by the African American Men’s Forum, and the National Conference for Community and Justice. The Long Beach NAACP named an award in her honor. The Zelma Lipscomb Award has been presented to those exemplifying Mrs. Lipscomb’s spirit and community dedication such as Cecile Harris Walters, Lori Ann Guzman-Harrison, Wilma D. Powell, Claudette Powers, Dr. Janice Filer, Charlotte Virginia (Simms) Berry, and Kimberly Benoit.

          Zelma Lipscomb passed away September 24, 2006. Until I researched her past, I never knew how much she had overcome, and her fortitude, determination, and strength in fighting to remove restrictions which faced people of color.  Other blacks undoubtedly share similar stories of bigotry and hate. Hopefully they will take the path Mrs. Lipscomb did by forgoing violence and use peaceful protests to  improve their community and race.  Posthumously, my friend Zelma, I thank you and hope your story will inspire others.

Thanks to Aaron Day for providing the names of the recipients of the NAACP Zelma Lipscomb Award.