Lawrence Lee Oldaker, who has lived in Juneau since the mid-1970s, radiates southern hospitality.
He is warm and welcoming with bright blue eyes that seem to have a laughter of their own.
During a recent interview at his home, though, Oldaker recalled growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, in the 1930s when southern hospitality was not extended to all. It was a “separate but equal” kind of world in the South, and Oldaker knew he was born into privilege based solely on the color of his skin.
“We were poor, well-fed, proud and white, and I did realize the possibility that being white was an advantage,” Oldaker, now in his 80s, said in reference to his childhood.
But Oldaker saw himself as different, both in morals and stature, from others, including some in his family; his grandmother, for instance, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan at the time. He’s 5’4”, a perceived physical shortcoming that he said made him empathetic to others. This worldview would lead Oldaker to participate in one of the largest social justice movements in the country’s history.
On Sept. 6, 1961, Oldaker integrated one of the first school systems in the Deep South on a student, staff and faculty level as the superintendent of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort schools in Laurel Bay, a coastal community in South Carolina. He oversaw three grade schools on the military base, all of which opened in the years following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that a “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional.
Surrounding southern communities were still very resistant to any efforts that would desegregate schools, despite the ruling. As a result, Oldaker and military leadership intentionally tried to keep South Carolina’s Laurel Bay schools out of the local news headlines to prevent public disruption.
“That first day of school was quite memorable,” Oldaker said. “We put together the project by buying the school for a dollar, did the recruiting, curricular design, buying supplies and equipment, and we opened within a month. And on the very first day of school, we had a mixed and integrated staff, student body, and faculty. We made assignments of youngsters without regards to race, creed or color, and it went off extremely well.”
After the first day of school, there was only one household that questioned the schools’ new procedure. A corporal approached Oldaker with concerns that while he was accepting of the integrated classrooms, his wife — a segregationist Southerner — was not. Oldaker encouraged the corporal to go home and talk to his daughter. The next day, the corporal reported that his daughter did not know if she had a black teacher or not, which proved Superintendent Oldaker’s point that children were not aware of racial differences unless instructed otherwise. The corporal’s daughter was going to be just fine.
The Marine Corps Air Station Laurel Bay Schools were formed as a result of internal military personnel strife. A black serviceman had submitted a complaint that he was concerned for his child’s safety and quality of education. South Carolina state law refused to uphold Brown v. Board and required all black children to be bused to an all-black school eight miles away rather than attend a neighboring school with up-to-date textbooks and highly qualified educators. Anticipating further complications, the U.S. Marine Corps purchased a nearby school for one dollar in order to open a federal institution that could educate all military children equally, irrespective of race. Initially, there was only one school of 300 students — grades one through six — with approximately 5 percent of non-white students. Then the school was split into primary, elementary and middle schools.
Oldaker assumed the role of superintendent for the schools after being approached by military leadership he met while working at an upper class pool club. He had a reputation in the education field — both through his post-secondary education and professional background working as a teacher — and accepted the position knowing his main responsibility was to run an integrated school in the heat of statewide resistance to desegregation and backlash from groups like the Klu Klux Klan.
For the first few years while at the Laurel Bay schools, an armed Marine Corps sniper guard during the day and night was stationed outside of his home and the school for protection. A chain link fence was also built around the premises.
“The Klu Klux Klan was aware of our (school),” Oldaker said. “When the Klan came to town, the counterintelligence of the Marine Corps visited me and said, ‘We’d like for you to stay away from (town)’ so I did.”
He stayed away while the KKK was there, and then returned when they left. Nothing ever happened to him or the schools, he said.
South Carolina’s Laurel Bay Schools were just the start for Lawrence Lee’s career path to end institutional racism in school systems. He led desegregation efforts in Georgia, and developed a national reputation for successfully instituting a racially diverse student body with equal access to quality education.
Oldaker’s reputation from working in the Deep South’s education field eventually reached Alaska, and he was invited to join the University of Alaska, South East system (then known as UASE) to improve the accessibility to postsecondary education for Alaska Natives.
“The issue was encouraging Natives to get into the school system,” Oldaker said. “I noticed in the 1930s there was a lawsuit comparable to Brown v. Board of Education where the Sitka Native students weren’t allowed to go to the white public schools unless they gave up their Native ways.”
A lawsuit in 1976, known as the Molly Hootch case, ended the segregation of Alaska Natives from the public school system and required the State of Alaska to provide funding to Native villages so that they could develop their own local schools. This landmark decision occurred while Oldaker worked at UASE, and his mission was not only to increase Alaska Native enrollment in the university system but to also empower Alaska Natives to become the very educators and decision makers of their schools.
“We wanted to get the Natives in school to get their baccalaureate degrees to be teachers, and my interest of course was a graduate program to get the teachers to become superintendents and principals,” Oldaker said. “We wanted them to be on the spot, we wanted (the teachers) to be local.”
Back in his living room, Oldaker chuckles when mentioning he retired in 1999. He still works by traveling around the U.S. attending and presenting at conferences and conventions centered on racial equity in schools — all after working for over six decades in the field.
“I think giving is a contagious sort of thing,” Oldaker said. “And once you do it selflessly, make sure that others (do too) because you’re only one person.”
• Ray Friedlander is a Douglas writer who contributes the monthly People of Juneau feature to the Juneau Empire. To nominate someone for a profile, email firstname.lastname@example.org with “People of Juneau” in the subject line. Includes your name, contact information, the name of the nominee and their contact information, plus why you think they deserve to be spotlighted.