Why Indian Territory's All-Black Towns Prospered While Most Of Oklahoma Territory's Faded Away
Between the end of the Civil War 150 years ago until the height of Jim Crow in the early 20th century, African-Americans established more than 50 all-black towns across the state. Some lasted only a few years, but a handful of them still exist today.
In 2000, Oklahoma Historical Society Director of Special Projects Larry O’Dell wrote that African-Americans built prosperous farming communities in both the Indian and Oklahoma territories before statehood - and they supported businesses, schools, newspapers, and churches:
In these towns, African Americans lived free from the prejudices and brutality found in other racially mixed communities of the Midwest and the South. African Americans in Oklahoma and Indian Territories would create their own communities for many reasons. Escape from discrimination and abuse would be an important driving factor. All-Black settlements offered the advantage of being able to depend on neighbors for financial assistance and of having open markets for crops. Arthur Tolson, the pioneering historian of Blacks in Oklahoma, asserts that many African Americans turned to “ideologies of economic advancement, self-help, and racial solidarity.”
Today, only a handful of these towns survive since many failed in the '20s and '30s as the Great Depression forced residents to leave the south in search of jobs. On June 30, The Oklahoma Historical Society hosted a panel discussion about the history of these towns and the few that remain.
"Black Towns Then...Black Towns Now" featured a mixture of black town government representatives and scholars, like retired East Central University historian Linda Reese, attorney and author Hannibal Johnson. Grayson Mayor James Anderson, Rentiesville Mayor Mildred Burkhalter, and the town of Langston trustee Alonzo Peterson also participated in the panel discussion moderated by state Rep. George Young (D-Oklahoma City)
Black Towns In Indian Territory vs. Oklahoma Territory
When Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907, officials held a "ceremonial marriage" between Cherokee Nation citizen Mrs. Leo Bennett of Muskogee - who represented Indian Territory in the eastern half of the present-day footprint of the state - and Oklahoma City business and civic leader C.G. Jones - who stood for Oklahoma Territory, made up of the Unassigned Lands opened for settlement in 1889, and several other Native American tribes not included under the Five Civilized Tribes banner.
But where did that ceremonial marriage between a white settler and a Native American leave blacks?
Attorney and author Hannibal Johnson says more black towns in Indian Territory survived into the present day because most were formed by freedmen, former slaves who'd benefited from their relationship with the powerful native tribes who received access to land during the early 20th century allotment process.
"In some of the tribes, for example the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, there was a system of land ownership called 'usufructuary,' meaning that you were entitled to live on and use the land that you needed, basically, although you did not have clear title to the land," Johnson said. "So a lot of people of African descent living among, or affiliated in some way with the Five Civilized Tribes, gained access to land. And around that land they built these towns."
Johnson also said tension developed between people of African descent with Native American connections and those who had migrated from the Deep South to escape political oppression. He described the differences as petty personality squabbles mainly over attitudes.
"Those people with Native American ancestry thought that the people coming from the Deep South were too servile because they had been conditioned to act at the behest of the white man," Johnson said.
Johnson also said the proximity of towns like Boley, Clearview, Taft and Grayson to the headquarters of the various Indian Nations offered a high level of degree and support that allowed them to survive into the present day.
KGOU relies on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with arts and culture reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.