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Date posted:  December 7, 2022

Maxine Horner (1932-2021) and Don Ross (1941-) are two of the most impactful leaders in the history of the state of Oklahoma. Their public careers intersect powerfully with the life and work of Eddie Faye Gates. As determined advocates of Tulsa’s Black community and cultural heritage, Horner and Ross labored with Gates to preserve North Tulsa’s history and, as Gates wrote, uncover “a pattern of deliberate distortion of facts” about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Maxine Horner’s Passion for the Arts and Community Service

Maxine Horner was born in 1932 to Earl and Corinne Cissel, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ms. Horner’s love for the arts began at a very early age, though one could assume her proclivity for music was passed down from her parents. In an oral history interview Horner said, “Both parents were musical enthusiasts.” In fact, her father was a lover of jazz and blues music while her mother leaned toward classical and gospel music. Horner added, “but my attraction was to my dad because I loved the jazz and the blues.” Public accommodations were segregated in Tulsa, necessitating a need for her parents, like other Black Tulsans, to host artists and musicians in their home. As a result, Horner was exposed to some of the greatest Black musicians and entertainers. Seeing that his daughter had an affinity for music, Mr. Cissel often brought a young Horner along to see Big Band shows at one of the local, Black-owned venues. It was through attending these shows that her love of music, and the arts in general, continued to grow and thrive.

Horner attended Dunbar Elementary, Carver Junior High, and Booker T. Washington High School where she graduated in 1951. Having received an academic scholarship to Marshall College in Wiley, Texas, Horner moved south to pursue higher education. Initially, she hoped to enroll in and obtain a degree in music and fine arts. However, her guidance counselor encouraged her to take courses that would help to build a foundation for whatever career she ultimately chose. While pursuing her associate’s degree in Personnel Management, she had to leave school early to help her family. Although she had to pause her education to start working, Horner knew she would go back one day and obtain her college degree.

It was not until many years later, while in her fifties, that Horner would enroll on the campus of Langston University, Oklahoma’s only historically Black college founded in 1897. Horner attended school in Langston, Oklahoma during the week and would drive home to Tulsa on the weekends. She graduated from Langston in 1985 with a degree in Personnel Management. Horner continued to observe the national and local injustices she saw being perpetrated against Black people. Horner threw herself more fully into Tulsa’s Civil Rights Movement, coordinating and participating in public demonstrations throughout downtown Tulsa.

Through her work with local campaigns, and her staff position with Congressman James R. Jones, her love for community activism flourished. Horner was inspired by Jones’ dedication and his “personal approach” to his constituents and his community, recalling fondly how he expected his aides to share in those commitments with equal dedication. In 1986, Horner made a successful run for state senate, where she joined Vicki Miles-LaGrange as one of the first two Black women to serve in the Oklahoma Senate and eventually became the first Black woman to serve as Democratic Caucus Chair. Between 1986 to 2004, she served tirelessly on numerous committees, supported initiatives that helped support economic development and education (including OHLAP or “Oklahoma’s Promise”), co-founded the Greenwood Cultural Center, and eventually retired due to term limits. As a state senator, Horner was known for her passion, kindness, and persuasiveness.  As Eddie Faye Gates put it in her own oral history interview with Horner, “I heard that you are legendary in the capital for getting people on your side and if Maxine Horner asks for the money, it comes…It is no wonder that North Tulsa is so proud of this lady.”

While pouring her energy into community activism projects throughout her career, Horner’s love for the arts was never abandoned. She continued to support the fine arts as a state senator. Marking one of many major achievements of her career, Horner sponsored legislation that created and funded the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in Tulsa and also played a leading role in developing arts curriculum and jazz labs in local schools. Her experience growing up surrounded by vibrant jazz musicians in Tulsa taught her that music was a major piece of Oklahoma history that she believed was one of the state’s “best kept secrets” and needed to be told. In 2007, Horner’s commitment to education and the arts led her to become the first Black woman inducted into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame. 

Over the years, Horner worked alongside her colleague, Representative Don Ross, on a number of initiatives of shared importance. In 1997, Horner and Ross joined three other members of the Black Caucus of the Oklahoma legislature to introduce House Joint Resolution 1035, creating the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. As Gates said, this momentous legislation–“that act of courage”-became the driving force that awakened the state legislation to the “need for acknowledgement, repentance, reconciliation, and closure.” Horner continued to support the cause of massacre survivors and descendants well into her eighties, chairing a committee to oversee the ongoing search for burial sites in Tulsa. Horner passed away shortly after the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre at the age of eighty-eight.

Don Ross and his Pursuit of Equality and Justice

Don Ross was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1941. Like Horner, he attended Booker T. Washington High School and graduated in 1959. It was as a high school student where Ross first heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre in a class taught by W. D. Williams. Learning about the atrocity committed in his own city influenced Ross deeply. As Eddie Faye Gates has suggested, “Once planted, this seed was destined to blossom when the time was right. … Ross made a pledge in his heart that someday the whole city, state, nation, and world would know about this riot, too.” Ross credited Henry Clay Whitlow, principal of Booker T. Washington High School, for making an indelible impact on his life as a student and helping him to see college as a future possibility. After graduation, he enlisted in the Air Force, where he served for four years. He returned to Tulsa in 1959, and began work at a locally owned bakery. Ross enrolled as a student at the University of Central Oklahoma in the mid-1960s, though also like Horner, would not finish his degree until later in 1986. After that, he studied at the University of Tulsa’s College of Law, Rutgers University, and Columbia University. 

Like Horner, Ross was influenced by the broader national Civil Rights Movement and leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., even attending the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He also participated in the Chicago-based Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an interracial group of students committed to nonviolent direct action. At home in Tulsa, Ross picketed in protest of segregation and discriminatory business practices. His concern for equality and justice across multiple spheres of social life, particularly for the North Tulsa community, would propel his eventual political career and shaped his achievements in the state legislature. 

Ross’s passion for the civil rights struggle at home and throughout the nation found an important outlet through writing. In 1963, he began work at the historical newspaper, the Oklahoma Eagle. His career in journalism caught him by surprise. Asked to cover a story, he discovered that he had a talent for journalism. The Oklahoma Eagle gave him a chance to write a weekly column and hone his gift for written communication. Through the 1960s and into the early 1970s, the seed that had been planted as a high school student grew as he used his writing to expose the history of the 1921 massacre. In 1971, Ross helped found Oklahoma Impact Magazine where, on the fiftieth anniversary of the massacre, he ran an article called “Profile of a Race Riot,” written by a local Tulsa radio host, Ed Wheeler. Considered too controversial, the piece had been rejected by other Tulsa publishers. Indeed, the article led to heavy criticism of Ross and even threats made against Ed Wheeler. But because Ross chose to publish the article in Impact, as Brent Staples writes, both men “cracked the wall of silence and made it possible to speak openly about the riot for the first time in 50 years.” 

In 1982, Ross was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives and served until 2003. The issues that were at the heart of his civil rights activism became his focus while serving as a representative.  During his twenty year tenure in the Oklahoma House of Representatives he focused on issues such as education, the arts, labor relations, economic development and affirmative action. In fact, he authored Oklahoma’s first affirmative action law (establishing preferences for minority vendors) and affirmative action goals for higher education. Further, he helped to establish Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a state holiday, even lobbying to rename I-244—a highway constructed directly through the Greenwood District–after Dr. King. As a state representative he improved health and social services for minorities and developed cultural opportunities for Black Tulsans and other minorities, with one of these crowning achievements being the development of the famed Greenwood Cultural Center. 

While the development of the Greenwood Cultural Center surely made him proud, his most satisfying accomplishment was his fight to take down the Confederate flag flying above the capitol building. As Ross recalled, “When I was sworn in in 1984, my son Edward was with me. He asked why we flew that flag. I had no answer for him. I had never noticed it.”  This question posed by his son, Edward, was the catalyst for Ross’s efforts and in 1989, Oklahoma became the first state in the nation to take down the Confederate flag above its governmental buildings.

During his political career he held leadership positions including secretary and chairman of the House of Representatives Democratic Caucus, vice-chairman of the Tulsa County Democratic Party, chairman of the speaker’s committee on at-risk youth, and co-chairman of the Oklahoma Task Force on African American Males. Like Maxine Horner, Don Ross was his own force to be reckoned with when it came to providing funding for the North Tulsa community, bringing more than $79 million to this predominantly Black area to help fund health care and programs for children and senior citizens.

Ross’s and Horner’s shared commitments to equality, justice, and North Tulsa combined powerfully in their co-sponsorship of House Bill 1035, creating the state commission to uncover the truth about the Tulsa Race Massacre. Appointing Eddie Faye Gates as Chair of the Survivors Committee was equally momentous. Between 1997-2001, Gates helped locate 169 Black survivors from across the United States and beyond whose stories are captured for the world to hear. The Black commissioners approached their work of historical reclamation with dedication and, as Gates put it, “to fulfill our state-mandated task of leaving a record of the riot that would clear up misconceptions and would lead to long-overdue reconciliation and healing.” For this, Oklahoma and the nation owes these remarkable Tulsa leaders a debt of gratitude.


1. Eddie Faye Gates, “The Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” Harvard Black Letter Law Journal, Vol. 20 (2004): 83.

2. Horner, Maxine, "Maxine Horner: Former Oklahoma Senator" Interview by John Erling, Voices of Oklahoma, November 14, 2019,  (accessed December 2, 2022).

3. Maxine Horner, “Maxine Horner: Former Oklahoma Senator,” Interview by John Erling, Voices of Oklahoma, November 14, 2019.  (accessed November 30, 2022).

4. Gates, Eddie Faye, “North Tulsa Oral History Project: Interview with Maxine Horner,” (c. 1994) 5327.1815, Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre Collection, Tulsa: Gilcrease Museum.

5. Gates, “The Oklahoma Commission,” 84.

6. Ibid., 83. 

7. Brent Staples, “Unearthing a Riot,” The New York Times Magazine, December 19, 1999, (accessed November 30, 2022).

8. Angela A., "Oklahoma Black History Heroes: Don R. Ross," Oklahoma Democratic Party, February 18, 2000, (accessed December 1, 2022).

9. Ibid.

10. Gail Banzet-Ellis, "Q&A with Don Ross," Tulsa People, September 21, 2018, (accessed December 1, 2022).

11. Gates, “The Oklahoma Commission,” 85.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, grant CAGML-247978-OMLS-20. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.