George McLaurin was the first African American student admitted to the University of Oklahoma. In 1948, McLaurin applied for admission to the doctoral program in the College of Education, directly challenging the state’s current segregation laws. McLaurin held a master’s degree in education from the University of Kansas and had taught for 33 years at Langston University before retiring in 1948. By the time of his application to the University of Oklahoma, McLaurin’s three children had each earned a master’s degree.
State segregation laws mandated that African Americans attend Langston Univeristy, while whites could go to either the University of Oklahoma or Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University). To comply with the provisions requiring equal access to educational programs, the state offered funding for African Americans to attend schools in nearby states for programs not offered at Langston. McLaurin challenged this law and, by court decision, was admitted to the University of Oklahoma.
In order to comply with state separation laws, President George Lynn Cross arranged for McLaurin’s classes to be held in classroom with an anteroom. By sitting in this side room, away from white students, McLaurin could attend the same classes but still be segregated. Special seating areas were created in the cafeteria and at sporting events, and separate restroom facilities were designated to insure continued segregation.
McLaurin challenged this continued segregation, taking the case to the United States Supreme Court. In 1950, the Supreme Court, in George W. McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents for Higher Education, ruled that segregation "handicapped him in his pursuit of effective graduate instruction." The decision began the process of tearing down official barriers to racial integration in Oklahoma higher education.
George McLaurin ultimately left the university after only two semesters. His case, however, would prove a key precedent in the national fight against segregation, paving the way for the landmark 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which established that separate was inherently unequal in all levels of education.