COMMENTARY: Remembering Currie Ballard: Inspiration to Oklahomans
By Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY — Currie Ballard, one of Oklahoma’s most respected historians, died last week at his home in Logan County.
Ballard’s personal brand of political conservatism, including leadership among African-Americans in the Republican Party, influenced a generation of politicians and policymakers.
In a statement, Gov. Mary Fallin described Ballard as “self-taught historian who felt a calling to share his knowledge.”
Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, in his prepared statement described Ballard as “an extraordinary individual. … He was not defined or limited by his past, but rather, he was strengthened by it. Currie was an inspiration to many, including me.”
In 2002 President George W. Bush appointed Ballard to help envision a museum of African-American history in the nation’s capital.
Three years later then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert appointed Ballard to a presidential commission investigating the role of slaves in construction of the U.S. Capitol building.
In 2009-10, he served as assistant secretary of the state Senate, appointed by President Pro Temp Glenn Coffee. To that point, he was the highest-ranking African-American to serve on state legislative staff.
“I was honored to appoint him,” Coffee said. “Currie was a great public servant and historian.”
Ballard was Historian-in-Residence at Langston University, a historically black college, from 1993 to 2006.
Four years ago, state Senators Judy Eason McIntyre, D-Tulsa, James Halligan, R-Stillwater, and Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, co-sponsored a resolution honoring Ballard when he was inducted into the Historian Hall of Fame (http://capitolbeatok.com/reports/historian-currie-ballard-honored-by-state-senate).
Ballard was a descendant of Wallis and Minerva Willis, former slaves who had been owned by members of the Choctaw tribe. The couple wrote the classic spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
The lyrics were fashioned in 1862, in what was then Indian Territory. The Red River reminded Wallis of the Jordan River, according to family lore. The song was loosely based on the passage in the Bible that speaks of a chariot taking the Prophet Elijah to Heaven.
In 2011, the beloved tune crafted by Ballard’s forebears was designated the Oklahoma state spiritual ((http://www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/swing-low-sweet-chariot-designated-state-gospel-song-fallin-signs-bill-at-black-caucus-dinner).
Among his many works, Ballard chronicled the history of black settlements in Oklahoma, including his adopted hometown of Langston and nearby communities like Boley (http://newsok.com/film-tells-of-vanishing-black-towns/article/2602222).
Mr. Ballard grew up in Los Angeles, largely raised by his grandparents.
Both his parents were incarcerated during his childhood but his mother earned a pardon from Ronald Reagan, then governor of California.
Ballard was serving on the state Pardon and Parole Board at the time of his death, his second term on the board.
He ardently believed wrong-doers should be held accountable, and equally believed in second chances after time served
Ballard came to Oklahoma in 1976, to attend Langston University. Although he only spent one year on campus at that time, he later earned a degree there.
Self-trained as an historian and writer, he ultimately wrote for newspapers and magazines. He may be most widely remembered for “The Ebony Chronicles,” a public television series that won a regional Emmy Award.
Ballard was a member of the Opinion Board of Contributors at The Oklahoman, writing extensively for the newspaper in 2001-02.
In one of many essays for the state’s largest newspaper, Ballard remembered Mohammed Ali’s role in reversing stereotypes in American mass media (http://newsok.com/fight-like-a-boxer-talking-poetry/article/2777251).
In his childhood, Ballard recalled, “If there was a black member of the cast in a movie (1940s-1950s), we would bet among ourselves when the black person would be killed long before the movie would end.
“African-American images at that time were more like Step’n Fetchit stereotypes. If we were watching a national network program like ‘I Spy,’ with co-star Bill Cosby, the entire neighborhood would stop play and get in front of a TV. The same would be true for blacks guest-starring on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ such as James Brown, the Supremes and the Temptations.”
Then came Ali, whose boxing career began in controversy. Slowly the heavyweight champion developed into an American icon. Ballard wrote, “Muhammad Ali was and still is a person of dedication, pride and peace.”
Bob Burke, the attorney and biographer who entered the Hall of Fame the same year as Ballard, told Oklahoma Watchdog, “Currie always brought a unique perspective to writing and explaining Oklahoma history. He lived some of the most exciting and challenging chapters of our past and was careful to tell any story factually and timely.”
“Words cannot express the sadness of the passing of Currie Ballard. Mr. Ballard’s example of embracing and defining life regardless of how challenging life can be is a model for us all,” said Jonathan Small, policy vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Oklahoma’s leading free-market research organization.
“Mr. Ballard constantly challenged the status quo and confounded stereotypes whether it came to political positions or public policy. In particular, Mr. Ballard has been a major influence and catalyst for my focus on the desperate need for major corrections reform in Oklahoma,” Small told Oklahoma Watchdog.
State Sen. Jabar Shumate, a Tulsa Democrat, told The City Sentinel, “Currie Ballard was one of the finest public officials in Oklahoma. He saw the best in people and truly understood the concept of restorative justice.”
Shumate affirmed, “He will forever be known for his commitment to making sure that Oklahomans had a deeper understanding of both our heritage and legacy.”
Harold Roberts, who manages a public charter school in Oklahoma City, reflected, “Currie Ballard is the Oklahoma version of John Hope Franklin, the historian of historians. He is ‘our’ Oklahoma black historian. He identified our significant times and important moments in history.”
In an interview, Roberts credited Ballard with drawing him toward GOP on the basis of policy issues and historical knowledge.