Oklahoma’s All-Black Towns: A Short & Storied History
There's a new exhibit at a museum in Tulsa that just opened, highlighting the history and retelling the stories of Oklahoma's all-black towns.
Founded in freedom, dwindled by racism, yet some survive still.
While you would expect the story to begin after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, the roots of this story grew long before the war.
In the early 1800s, slavery was as much on the upswing in America as it had ever been. The invention of the cotton gin provided a whirlwind of demand for slaves. This unbelievably simple machine made the tedious and expensive cotton processing cheap, easy and profitable.
As plantations swelled in size, the demand for new land was equally as high, but it largely belonged to the native people of this country.
This is the part of the story you probably already know. The Indian Removal Act, Congress establishing Indian Territory, the Trail of Tears, etc... What you likely didn't know was, along with the tribes, came slaves owned by tribal members along with free black people seeking a way out of The South.
In 1850, the Creek Nation approved a Presbyterian schoolhouse mission to be built. It was named Tullahassee Mission School and served to educate tribal youth for the next thirty years. It wasn't until a fire broke out and destroyed the school that the tribe opted to gift the school to freed Creek slaves.
The tribe gave these freedmen enough money to rebuild the school, and the area quickly became a haven for all black Americans.
While scholars still debate whether Tullahassee was the first all-black town in Indian Territory, everyone agrees that it's the oldest still-surviving all-black community in Oklahoma.
As all trends do, more all-black communities popped up on the promise of freedom and a place of their own across Indian Territory. While an exact number hasn't survived history, scholars have identified 50 all-black towns that have existed at some point in Oklahoma.
Of those, thirteen still survive against all odds.
While it's endearing and inspirational to think about the triumph of good over evil in this story, it almost wasn't.
There is no good without bad.
By the time the land runs were over, Indian Territory was on its way to becoming the 46th state. Famed "Okies," such as Will Rogers and Wiley Post, campaigned for Oklahoma's statehood for years, but it was lesser men that almost cost the Sooner State the chance.
As men worked to see Oklahoma join the union, there was a fight over the state constitution at the highest level of government.
Segregation was the hot topic of the day, and those that were tasked with framing Oklahoma's constitution wanted to include it. President Theodore Roosevelt would absolutely not have it.
Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907. While segregation was successfully excluded from the state constitution, it wouldn't be for long.
The very first thing our state legislatures did was vote to legalize Jim Crow Era laws.
Segregation of schools was the hottest topic in the state at the time, as were limits on who could and could not vote. These racist laws are credited, alongside the conditions of the Great Depression, for the decline of Oklahoma's once-thriving all-black towns.
Today, the most notable, and likely most known surviving all-black Oklahoma town has to be Langston - a small community up the road from Guthrie with the still-thriving historically-black college Langston University.
Learn more at the All-Black Towns of Oklahoma exhibit in Tulsa.
If you'd like to see something unique to Oklahoma and learn more about this rich and largely unknown history, the All-Black Towns of Oklahoma exhibit is on display now at the Henry Zarrow Center for Art & Education at the University of Tulsa.