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Date posted:  May 5, 2021

Eddie Faye Petit was born in Preston, OK on February 5, 1934. She was the second child born to sharecroppers, Vivian and Ferman Petit. Gates’ grandparents, whose parents were enslaved in Texas on a cotton plantation, came to Indian Territory (I.T.) along with 12 other families in a caravan of wagons in 1904. They all sought a better life and to escape the insidious racism and injustices of the South. Gates wrote in her autobiography Miz Lucy’s Cookies: And Other Links in my Black Family Support System, “they had been told that I.T. was heaven on earth; it wasn’t but it was better than Texas.”

Eddie Faye Gates dressed in 1950s Tuskegee Institute Uniform, Edison High School, Tulsa, OK, 1974
Eddie Faye Gates dressed in 1950s Tuskegee
Institute Uniform, Edison High School,
Tulsa, OK, 1974

Her strong family support system included her parents, grandparents, her extended family, teachers, church and small community. Instilled in her was the value of hard work, serving others and, above all else, getting an education. Because of this strong support system that she refers to as her “safety net,” Gates excelled even within the confines of rural Oklahoma’s separate but not equal segregate schools and upon graduation gained admittance to the renowned historic Black college, Tuskegee Institute (now University), in Tuskegee Alabama.

At Tuskegee Institute, the foundation laid for Gates in Preston was reinforced by the values of service and knowledge-seeking demonstrated at Tuskegee. She flourished under the tutelage of her professors and mentors. For example, one of her sociology professors inspired her “to become an activist for life,” and the trajectory of her life proves that she took this to heart. While at Tuskegee, she met her future husband, Norman Gates, and when he completed his degree in engineering they were married, leaving her one year shy of completing her degree at Tuskegee.

As a military wife from 1954-1968, she lived with her family on Air Force bases throughout the United States and Europe. Never one to give up, Gates took classes everywhere they were stationed in order to complete her degree. Finally in 1968, with the support of her husband Norman, she graduated magna cum laude from the University of North Dakota and in 1974, she obtained a Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Tulsa. 

The Gates family arrived in Tulsa from North Dakota in 1968 and she began teaching at Edison High School (the second African American to teach there). Her passion for education never waned during her 22 year tenure as a teacher in the classroom, and two years in administration as Curriculum Coordinator in Social Studies for Tulsa Public Schools. In 1999, she wrote, “I thought that teaching was the noblest profession in the world, I still do!”

Eddie Faye Gates in front of chalkboard, March 3, 1989
Eddie Faye Gates in front of chalkboard,
March 3, 1989

She retired in 1992 and began her second career as the author of three published books, countless editorials, and articles relating to causes she cared deeply about. In the dedication to her family in her first book, Miz Lucy’s Cookies, Gates writes: “thanks for bearing with me while I was off fighting one of my everlasting crusades for some cause that I felt couldn’t make it without me.” Gates’ research took her to Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Africa. Reflecting on the history of the transatlantic slave trade while in England and the Holocaust while in Poland and Israel would powerfully shape her understanding of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 when she came back to Oklahoma.

Eddie Faye Gates in 1998 holding her first book, Miz Lucy’s Cookies
Eddie Faye Gates in 1998 holding her first
book, Miz Lucy’s Cookies

Gates served on various boards, commissions, and councils of organizations dedicated to the uplifting of mankind, including an Advisory Counsel for the United Nations Association/USA, the Oklahoma Historical Society, Tulsa Human Rights Commission, OETA, and the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. She was a member of the First Wednesday Book Club and an active volunteer/speaker at her church, First Church of Christ, Scientist. These are just a few of the organizations that Eddie Faye devoted her time and energy to. Her list of accomplishments and awards is impressive and fills folders.

Perhaps the defining legacy of Eddie Faye Gates is her work on behalf of the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. By the 1990s, the survivors of the massacre were well advanced in age and many had already passed away. Their stories were being lost because of the fear ingrained in those who survived and the silence of the community. For many survivors who were children of varying ages in 1921, the Massacre was a subject that was simply not talked about and, if it was, only within the confines of home. 

Gates picked up the mantle and rallied support, campaigning tirelessly for survivors’ voices to be heard and fighting along with others to seek reparations on their behalf. She approached the history of the 1921 Massacre with all the passion she had for teaching, enlisting her skills of writing and listening and her steadfast determination to right a horrible wrong before they were gone. 

The Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre Collection honors the life, work, and passions of a contemporary African American woman, educator, author, and community activist. Eddie Faye Gates believed that one person could make a difference and it was the responsibility of each person to effect change wherever they were and to work to make the world better. What a difference one woman from rural Oklahoma made in her small corner of the world. 

Renee Harvey
Former Head Librarian-Archivist, Gilcrease Museum

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.