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Lena Lowery Sawner

Born on 6-20-1874. She was born in Richmond, IN. She was accomplished in the area of Education. She later died on 3-31-1949.
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In 1874, Lena Lowery was born in Richmond Indiana. In 1902, she moved to Chandler, Oklahoma where she married George W. F. Sawner. From1902 to 1934, Mrs. Sawner was principal of Douglass School in Chandler. The school was a segregated facility for Black students. She distinguished herself as a master educator, Black activist, humanitarian and elegant role model. Mrs. Sawner died in 1949. Many generations later, the fruits of her labors continue to benefit thousands of Oklahomans

Lena Sawner was a master educator. She demanded the quality of education at Douglass School be equal, or better, than that provided in the segregated white school system. Several concepts were basic. First, "everyone can learn if they apply themselves". She believed students properly lead by qualified teachers are able to effectively apply themselves. Second, learning experiences must not only focus on academic areas but also include social and other skills. Third, positive role models and Black pride are cornerstones for teaching Black students. Mrs. Sawner was a perfect role model. Her diction and use of the English language were flawless. She carried herself in a proud and dignified manner becoming the center of attention whenever she entered a room.

The walls of Douglass school were covered with photos and quotations of famous Black historical figures. Information on the successes of black Americans and the inequities imposed on them by segregation, were present in every corner of the school.

Black VIPs often visited Douglass School and talked with students. They included national figures such as: Oscar De Priest-Black Chicago area politician, Roscoe Dunjee-editor of the Black Dispatch Newspaper in Oklahoma City, Thurgood Marshall-future United States supreme court justice, and many others. Fourth, the community and the school must support each other. Important, teachers must have a close relationship with students and their families both in and out of the classroom. And fifth, it is important for students to compete. This is necessary to prepare for the competitive world outside the classroom.

Mrs. Sawner's concepts were key in transferring the negative energy of segregation and racism into a positive force improving performance in the Black community:

More than 90% of Douglass School students, who entered the ninth grade, received high school diplomas.
Graduating students departed with the best education available at the time.
Graduating students processed the self-confidence, academic knowledge and social skills to meet the challenges of a competitive world.

Lena Sawner in Hat

Mrs. Sawner was one of Oklahoma's first Black activist. She was a founding member of the Oklahoma Association of Negro Teachers. The mission of the association was to play a leadership role in improving the quality of teachers teaching black students. During her long career, Mrs. Sawner held every senior position in this dynamic organization.

The Sawners were extremely light-skinned and often mistaken for white. They were in constant conflict with railroad conductors who demanded they sit in the "white" section of the train and not in the less comfortable "Jim Crow" cars.

After arriving in Oklahoma, George Sawner quickly became wealthy. His wife Lena spent a large part of the family's fortune supporting Douglass School and the black community. Every year at Christmas, she escorted a group of older students to Oklahoma City. The objective was to buy every child in the school a Christmas gift. She showed the same charity in the purchase of materials for the school. Many of the books and materials used at the school were provided from Mrs. Sawner's personal funds. Her concerns extended to the elderly and the sick. She often brought Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner to those homebound.

Douglass School was the first county school to provide adult education classes. In the evenings, Mrs. Sawner and her staff, taught free adult literacy classes.

Mrs. Sawner was an elegant and "classy" Black lady. An immaculate dresser, she only wore the latest styles purchased at expensive stores. Well known for her Parisian perfume and fancy jewelry, the ostrich plum in one of her many hats cost $30.00. Her students idolized her manner of dress and her social graces. The Sawners were hosts for most Black VIPs visiting Chandler as well as for musical concerts and other major social events. Members from both the Black and white communities were guests at the Sawner home.

One example of her "classy" style is worth sharing. In the mid-1930s, Mrs. Sawner joined an organization that subsequently adopted laws requiring all members to wear black at club meetings or pay a $5.00 fine. Mrs. Sawner disliked black clothing. At the beginning of each meeting, she would politely place the fine on the table in front of the group's board of directors. Dressed in her traditional brilliantly colored attire, she would take a seat directly in front of the group that initiated the black clothing policy.

On March 31, 1949 Oklahoma lost one of its most talented and elegant ladies. Lena now rests with her husband George in a well-kept family plot in Newkirk Oklahoma. Thousands of Oklahomans are thankful for her devotion and sacrifices.

Learn more about the Lena Sawner

Our thanks to Mel Chatman for allowing us to reprint portions of Lena Sawner's story from Chapter 8 of the Ellis Family Story Web site.