For Marilyn Murrell, the tiny Oklahoma town of Arcadia has always been a big enough world to live in. Born and raised in Arcadia, Murrell has never lived away from her hometown for more than a few years. However, within her tightly woven community of family and friends, she has created a groundbreaking career of public service. When it appeared that Arcadia might be absorbed into the boundaries of a neighboring city, Murrell led the fight to preserve the town's identity. As the first mayor of the reestablished town of Arcadia, she has continued to work to keep Arcadia a vibrant, energetic, and safe place to live. Though her business and organizing skills could easily qualify her for a job in any big city, Murrell has chosen to remain in the town she loves and to focus on preserving a culture and a way of life that has become increasingly rare in the modern world.
Raised in Large Family
Born in the fall of 1947 at her parents' Arcadia home with the aid of a midwife, Sylvia Marilyn Parks was the eighth of nine children. Her father Ebbie Parks was an entrepreneur; throughout his career her owned and operated nightclubs, restaurants, and dry cleaning shops, as well as serving on the school board and participating in the community life of Arcadia. Her mother Inez Parks kept busy running the household and caring for her large family. She was also very involved in the school activities of their children, serving as PTA president, home room mother and chaperone for athletic teams and school events.
Young Parks was an introverted child who loved staying at home with her mother learning to garden and cook, reading books, or riding horses in the country lanes. Her playmates were her sisters and brothers or nearby neighbor children. Weekends often found the Parks family piled in the car for an educational day trip to a nearby state park or a visit to members of their large extended family.
When it was time to go to school, Parks was reluctant to leave her mother's side to enter the unfamiliar world of teachers and classes. With so many siblings going through school before her, she felt a great deal of pressure to do well, and she did, graduating from high school when she was only sixteen.
Parents Encouraged Learning
Ebbie Parks encouraged learning among his children. Besides the family trips to interesting sites, he led mealtime discussions of current events and expected his children to read the newspapers and keep themselves informed. He also expected them to excel in school and go on to college. When Ebbie and Inez Parks were in school, Arcadia's black school offered classes only through the eleventh grade. Therefore, the Parks, like many other African-American Arcadians, never completed their last year of high school. Perhaps because of this, both worked hard to provide higher education for of their nine children.
Marilyn Parks attended Central State College, now called the University of Central Oklahoma. The college was close enough that she could live at home, and she planned to major in English. However, in 1965, during the fall of her sophomore year, she married fellow student and basketball star Alfred Murrell. Alfred completed his senior year in 1969 and was offered a job playing basketball in the minor league Continental Basketball Association. The Murrells moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where Alfred's team was located. Alfred's career with the CBA later took them to Scranton, Pennsylvania.
However, after less than three years, they returned to live in Arcadia, where Murrell was happy to raise her family in her own hometown. She began to develop her business skills by working in some of her father's businesses and as an office manager of a construction company. In 1975 she went to work in nearby Oklahoma City at the Minority Business Development Center, working to help independent businesspeople run successful businesses.
Marilyn Murrell did not have great ambitions. She was happy with her small-town life, her family, and her work in the business community of central Oklahoma. However, during the mid-1980s something happened that changed the course of her career. The nearby city of Edmond was growing larger and decided as part of its growth to annex Arcadia into its borders.
Understood Oklahoma's Rich History
When this annexation was suggested, the town of Arcadia had a population of about 300 people. Many had lived in Arcadia for several generations, stretching back well over a hundred years in the town's history. Arcadia was a largely black town, with African Americans making up approximately 75 percent of the population. Around ten percent of the town's residents were Native American, and about fifteen percent were the descendents of European settlers.
This African-American majority was not unusual in the state of Oklahoma, where many black settlers made their home during the 1800s. Some came as slaves of the Cherokee people who were forced to leave their homes in the southeastern United States in 1938. In 1939, after a march so difficult it was dubbed the "Trail of Tears," they arrived in Oklahoma, where the Cherokee and the blacks made their homes alongside white European settlers.
Other black settlers came to Oklahoma as soldiers, many of whom had joined the army to help the Union defeat the Confederate States during the Civil War. These soldiers often remained in the army, serving on the western frontier of the United States from 1873 until 1903. Native Americans nicknamed these black servicemen "buffalo soldiers," a term used perhaps because the soldiers' dark skin and wooly hair resembled the coat of the great bison of the plains.
By 1907 so many African-American soldiers, farmers, and cowhands had settled in Oklahoma that they outnumbered both the Native Americans and the settlers of European origin. There were more all-black towns in the state of Oklahoma than in the other states combined. Though many of these early black towns no longer exist, several well-known towns still remain, including Langston, Boley, Taft, Meridian, and Arcadia.
The racially mixed population of Arcadia had lived in relative harmony for many years, even during the severe racial segregation of the 1950s. Though blacks and whites attended different schools then, when integration became the law the schools simply merged without hostility or resistance. Many of the families themselves have merged, and Arcadia became home to many interracial families.
At a Glance …
Born Sylvia Marilyn Parks on September 7, 1947, in Arcadia, Oklahoma; married Alfred Murrell, October 12, 1965 (divorced); children: Monica, Alfred "Buzz," Cypreanna. Religion: African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Career: Oklahoma City Minority Business Development Center, project manager, assistant director, and executive director, 1975-94; Oklahoma Department of Transportation, special project director, 1988; Oklahoma Minority Supplier Development Council, program administrator, 1988-90; M and M Business Consultants, Inc., president & chief executive officer, 1988–; Town of Arcadia, Oklahoma, mayor, 1988–; Oklahoma City Northeast, Inc., independent consultant, 1991-93; Oklahoma Consortium for Minority Business Development, Inc., chairman, 1991–.
Selected memberships: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; National Conference of Black Mayors Inc., president, 2002-3; National Small Town Alliance; Oklahoma Conference of Black Mayors, Inc., secretary, 1988-2003; Women's Foundation of Oklahoma.
Addresses: Office— P.O. Box 268, Arcadia, OK 73007.
Fought to Preserve Town's Identity
When Murrell heard about the city of Edmond's plans to annex her hometown, she was prompted to take action. Rather than see her town lose its identity, she organized a campaign to gather signatures for a petition against the annexation. A citizens' group called Arcadians Against Annexation elected her as spokes-person. Though some thought of seeking help from national groups like the NAACP, Murrell felt it was important that the work to save the town be done by the townspeople themselves. The Arcadians collected 2,000 signatures, twice as many as they needed to stop the annexation. They had taken their case into the city of Edmond, gathering signatures from citizens there who admired the town's energy and enthusiasm.
Once annexation was defeated, Murrell and other Arcadians spent the next four years in legal battles to reestablish the town's official identity. With the help of several lawyers who donated their labor, they set about to prove that Arcadia had been considered a town for at least twenty-five years. They gathered documents, from birth certificates and military papers to state road maps, which named the town of Arcadia. Finally, they proved their case to Governor Henry Bellmon, and in 1988 he signed an order making Arcadia the first Oklahoma town to exist by executive order.
Even then, the work of reestablishing the town of Arcadia had just begun. Towns need administrative officers, fire and police departments, and civic centers. One of the first official acts of the new town of Arcadia was to elect Marilyn Murrell mayor, an office she has held since 1988. Mayor Murrell set to work immediately to organize the town's support systems. Within a few years, Arcadia had a full-time paid police department with 15 reserve officers, a volunteer fire department, and a city hall, sold to the town for $500 by the local chapter of an international service and social group called the Oddfellows. In order to accomplish all this, Murrell set goals, sought grants to raise money, and promoted citizen responsibility, such as a volunteer maintenance department and beautification committee.
Though Murrell has continued to work as a consultant to small businesses, she took her duties as mayor very seriously, often working up to 80 hours a week. In an effort to learn more about local governance, she completed The Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University in July 2001. She has also taken a national role as part of the National Conference of Black Mayors, where she became the second woman president in 2002. In 1999 she made international connections as part of a U.S. Conference of Mayors delegation to West Africa. Welcomed like a returning sister by mayors and other citizens of African cities and towns in Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Ghana, Murrell learned more about just how far the borders of a small town can reach.
"Heritage Step-on Guide: Marilyn Murrell," Oklahoma Native America, http://22.214.171.124/search?q=cache:H4O5fAGxAcQJ:www.travelok.com/travelProf/step_on_guides.asp++mayor+Arcadia+oklahoma&hl=en (November 1, 2004).
"Marilyn Murrell Shows Saavy Style At National Mayors' Conference," African American News and Issues, www.aframnews.com/html/2003-05-07/lead3.htm (November 1, 2004).
"Oklahoma's History," A Look at Oklahoma, www.otrd.state.ok.us/StudentGuide/history.html (November 1, 2004).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Marilyn Murrell on November 9, 2004.
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