Oklahoma’s first Black public school principal, as well as its first female public school principal, was Lena Lowery Sawner. She was also active in national and state Black educational organizations. Lena Lowery came from modest beginnings. Julius Lowery, her father, was born a slave in North Carolina in 1846.
Ten years later, he married Priscilla Crane, who was born in Indiana, and they farmed in Indiana until the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1893. They settled near Newkirk, Oklahoma, just south of Kansas, and prospered enough to send their only daughter to the University of Chicago, where she received her A. B. degree in 1902.
Lowrey returned to Oklahoma after graduation and began teaching at the Douglass School, an all-Black elementary school with 12 students in Newkirk. She was the town’s first Black teacher and eventually became principal of the Douglass School in 1902, a position she held until 1934, when her eyesight failed.
Lowery married George Sawner, an Oklahoma businessman, attorney, and political activist, in 1903. They had no children of their own, but they fostered two children, Grace McCormick and Nell Margaret Beridon.
Lena Lowery Sawner was instrumental in the advancement of education in Oklahoma. Lee Cruce, Oklahoma’s second governor, appointed her as a delegate to the National Negro Educational Congress in Denver, Colorado, in 1911. She was a member of the Oklahoma Association of Negro Teachers, a group dedicated to improving the skills of Black teachers, and her Douglass School was the first county school to offer free adult education and literacy classes beginning in 1910. (The Daily Oklahoman, 25 Oct. 2016).
Governor Cruce appointed her to represent Oklahoma at a conference of Black Educators in Omaha in 1911. She was honored by the National 4-H Conference in 1947 for organizing 4-H clubs throughout Lincoln County. Lena Sawner was inducted into the Oklahoma African American Educators Hall of Fame posthumously in 2016.
Lena Sawner was a master educator who believed that strong role models and Black pride were essential components of education. VIPs frequently visited Douglass School and interacted with students. National figures like Oscar De Priest, a Black Chicago area Congressman, Roscoe Dunjee, the editor of the Black Dispatch newspaper in Oklahoma City, and Thurgood Marshall, a future United States Supreme Court justice, were among them.
Lena Lowery Sawner died on March 1, 1949, in Chandler. She was 74 years old at the time of her death and is buried in Newkirk, Oklahoma.