Union Public Schools Celebrates 100 Years

The following, from co-authors Gretchen Haas-Bethell and Peggi Ridgway, is a preview of the first three chapters of “An Uncommon Vision: The 100-Year History of Union Public Schools” which the district plans to publish in mid-2020. Former Union teacher Ron Mitchell, Union Class of 1970, provided much of the research.

Courtesy Union Public Schools
FIRST CONSOLIDATED SCHOOL BUILDING: This photo, taken about 1921, is of the first facility Union built after the consolidation of the four rural districts that joined together. This two-story brick building was completed in 1921 to house all students, grades K-12, until 1970 when Briarglen, the district’s first elementary school, was built.

When parents of students in four, rural, one-room schoolhouses––Alsuma, Central, Sunnyside and Union––voted in 1919 to merge and form the Union Consolidated School District, they actualized the community’s intent to provide education opportunities that could surpass even the latest offered by city schools for generations to come. To explain how Union Public Schools came to be, we start with a trivia question.
Question: What do Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, Union High School Junior Morris Rentie, Union graduate Shannon Milligan (Class of 2000) and Union Senior Ethan Henson have in common?
Answer: All are related to people who played key roles in the earliest history of Union Public Schools, today a premiere district with more than 16,000 students.
Student Morris Rentie’s connection to Union’s history dates back farther than the others. His ancestors were African American Creek Indians when Creek settlements spanned the current-day Tulsa and Broken Arrow landscape from which the Union School District was eventually carved. Between their arrival in the early 1800s and through the Civil War, the Creeks established a tribal government and an extensive educational system that included college and career training.
After the Civil War, Morris’s ancestral uncles pooled the land allotments they received as Creek freedmen to create two of the more than 50 all-black towns that existed in Oklahoma before statehood. William Rentie and Phoebe McIntosh established Rentiesville north of Checotah in 1903, which still exists. A year later Stephen and Luthis Rentie established Rentie Grove, a pleasant community near Union, between 81st and 91st Streets and Harvard Avenue and Sheridan Road, that vanished in the 1950s.
Around the turn of the century, the Creeks financed several rural schools and hired teachers for Union and Central. Lillian Wilkinson, the great-grandmother of Union 2000 graduate Shannon Milligan, was among the first to teach at the original Union schoolhouse, possibly as early as 1903.
Lillian would hitch a horse to a buggy and ride south nearly three miles from her family’s farm at 51st and Memorial (now Memorial Park Cemetery) to Union. The wood-framed schoolhouse sat on a large picturesque pasture at the northwest corner of today’s South Memorial Drive and East 76th Street. Lillian would arrive early enough to light the room’s pot-bellied stove and review material she had prepared for her first-through-eighth grade students.
Lillian’s parents, John and Ollie Wilkinson, took turns serving on the Board of Education for the nearby Alsuma School, where Lillian’s six younger siblings (three sets of fraternal twins) attended school. Alsuma took the same name as the diverse little town it served, a whistle-stop community of houses and mom and pop businesses in an area from 31st to 51st Streets between Mingo Road and 129th East Avenue.

Courtesy Moore granddaughter, Faye Ruth Gibson
EARLY ADVOCATES: As members of farm families who established two of the country schools in the area, Marshall T. Moore and wife, Amy Lytle Moore, helped to consolidate the four schools that formed the Union District.

After statehood in 1907, schoolhouses were folded into the public system and run by a locally elected board of education. Thomas Rankin Lytle (Senior Ethan Henson’s great-great-great grandfather) was the first director of the Union School Board of Education and was considered the “Father of Union” because of his leadership and family’s educational impact. At that point, the original Union schoolhouse attendance area included the farms and ranches between 61st and 91st streets, from west of Broken Arrow all the way to the Arkansas River. By 1911, annexation had changed the western boundary to 91st and Yale.

Courtesy Kristi Henson
UNION ROOTS: Union Senior Ethan Henson and his sister Bailey (Class of 2018) are the great-great-grandchildren of Marshall T. and Amy Lytle Moore. Their ancestors played key roles in forming Union Public School in 1919.

The Union Board Treasurer 1908-1919 was Arthur Bynum, a grocer whose family farmhouse fronted the northwest corner of 71st and Memorial. Arthur’s younger brother William served on the Central School Board of Education 1912-1913.
Just as their father, Tulsa’s second mayor Robert Newton Bynum (1899-1900), had worked to establish Tulsa Public Schools, Arthur and William took leadership roles in the consolidation effort to modernize educational offerings in rural Tulsa County. Arthur and William were ancestral uncles of current Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum. Their sibling, George Theron Bynum, was G.T.’s great-grandfather and namesake.
Central School, named for its location on the north side of East 71st Street halfway between Garnett Road and South 129th East Avenue, was across the road from the Moore family farmhouse. Marshall T. and Amy Lytle Moore (great-great-grandparents of Union Senior Ethan Henson) worked hard for consolidation, as did their fathers––John Moore, who was on the Central Board (1909-1911), and Union’s Thomas Lytle.
Thanks to their persistence, and that of many others like Central’s Charles Mercer family, momentum shifted toward consolidation at Alsuma as well as Sunnyside, a school just west of 129th East Avenue between 41st and 51st Streets. The results of the May 1919 Special Election held at Central proved that the huge challenge had been met; consolidation passed 75-53!
The next big hurdle would be passing a bond issue to fund a new, comprehensive school building­. That portion of Union’s history reflects a contentious time, one involving several failed bond elections­­ and a bond meeting where a gun was drawn, and people were arrested! But that’s a story for another article.

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