By Dave Kinnamon
Barbara Finley was 15 years old and was looking forward to her sophomore year at Booker T. Washington High School — Enid’s segregated high school for black students — when she was abruptly called into the principal’s office one day in 1958.
“Mr. Elliott, the principal, told me he was expelling me from the school because high school students being married set a bad example for the other students,” Finley recalled.
Finley and the love of her life, Robert, 16 years old at the time, were legally wed in Garfield County on May 26, 1958. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a marriage celebration cruise to the Caribbean earlier this summer.
“Since we were minors, we actually had to go to court and ask the judge’s permission to get married,” Finley recalls with some amusement.
Though the Garfield County judge gave his blessing to the Finleys’ happy nuptials, Mr. Elliott, the principal at Booker T. Washington High School, did not give the young couple his approval.
“Mr. Elliott thought being in school and married at the same time would be setting a bad example for the other young people, so he put us both out of school,” Finley said.
The school system did give young Robert and young Barbara the chance to petition the board of education for the opportunity to attend night school in order to finish their high school diplomas.
But at a cost of $300 per student, the young couple could not afford night school.
Barbara Finley had had all of her children — five children — by the age of 21, so, she says, her 1968 was seen entirely through the prism of a young mother who was focused on keeping stable family values.
“In 1968, I was 25 years old, married with five children from the ages of five years old to 11. I was living in Compton, Calif. My concerns at the time in 1968 was the family unit. My family truly believed in the family unit,” Finley said.
“I say that to say that when Dr. (Martin Luther) King was killed, our thought was focused first on the destruction of his family unit. His wife and children, having small children, relating to our personal feelings of having small children and how I would have felt had I been in the same situation (as Coretta Scott King),” Finley said.
Robert and Barbara Finley moved to Compton, Calif., with their five children in 1966. Barbara worked as nurse at a nearby hospital.
“It got very rough in Compton. It got very rough for our kids at school. We would not allow the children to be out after 10 p.m. Though it was a family environment when we first moved there, we moved away from Compton in order to save our children’s lives,” Barbara said.
Barbara recalled a time at the emergency room where she worked when a young man that had been shot was brought in.
“One of his brother gang members approached me and warned, “If he dies, so will you,’” she said.