The son of freed slaves, Ellis Walker Woods was born in the hills of eastern Mississippi in 1885. After spending his early youth farming, he enrolled at Rust College, a school for African-Americans in Holly Springs. He worked his way through both the secondary and collegiate levels at Rust, and upon graduation set out for Memphis, Tennessee. Finding few employment opportunities in Memphis, Woods saw a flyer advertising teaching positions for “colored” teachers in Oklahoma. He made the 500-mile journey from Memphis to Sapulpa, Oklahoma, on foot, crossing farm fields and walking along railroad tracks.
Woods eventually traveled from Sapulpa to Tulsa, where he began a tenure that would span 35 years—from 1913 to 1948—as the first principal of Booker T. Washington High School. Woods intentionally designed Booker T. to have a strong foundation and lasting legacy, inspiring his teachers, staff, and the community to support students in attending college. By 1925, the school had 470 students and a staff of 21 teachers. Under his tenure, Booker T. became the first Tulsa high school accredited by the North Central Association, primarily due to Woods’s recruitment of teachers with advanced degrees.
Woods became a pillar of the community in segregated Tulsa, and often was consulted on matters of race by authorities. The end of World War II heralded the era of racial integration throughout the country, and in 1946 the Governor of Oklahoma consulted with Woods to plot a course for academic integration in Oklahoma. His dedication to education, and his students, led Woods in his final years to work toward securing funding for a new physical plant for Booker T. Washington High School. He succeeded in securing the requisite school funds, a formidable task given that school segregation was still the norm and funding for schools serving African-American communities required separate municipal bonds to be issued.
A memorial to Ellis Walker Woods and his legacy was dedicated on Aug. 16, 2019, on the OSU-Tulsa campus, and at that time was entrusted to OSU-Tulsa to care for and maintain. The memorial is located at the intersection of Greenwood Ave. and John Hope Franklin Blvd. on the OSU-Tulsa campus. A historical marker commemorating the original location of Booker T. Washington High School also can be found on the campus, outside the Brock Leadership Lab. The Brock Institute is honored to institutionalize this distinguished leader with an annual cash award bearing his name and given to school or community leader who exemplifies his legacy.