The State of Oklahoma: An Early Opportunity for Equality
Oklahoma and Indian Territories, for a time, provided a unique opportunity for the African-American community to create new social and political institutions.
African-Americans interested in settling Oklahoma Territory petitioned the United States Congress to open the land while reserving every third section for “colored emigrants.” A Senator from New Hampshire and the Secretary of the Interior sponsored the initiative, introducing it as a bill. Supporters of this legislation promoted its potential to ease racial tensions in the southern states by allowing freedmen to relocate.
Many national leaders in the African-American community encouraged migration. Booker T. Washington believed the establishment of economically successful communities would force the federal government to recognize civil, social, and eventually, political rights for African-Americans nationwide. Ida B. Wells acknowledged that emigration as a means to escape hostile environments and racial violence of southern states may appeal to some while remaining skeptical of the optimistic boomer propaganda.
William Eagleson, a Kansas politician, worked as the public relations officer for The Freedmen’s Oklahoma Immigration Association founded in Chicago in 1881. This boomer organization encouraged those with financial means to move to the territory.
Native American Freedmen established several all-black towns in Indian Territory, creating a model for African-American immigrants in Oklahoma Territory. Lincoln City, the first of these new settlements, was founded in August of 1889. Both, Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells, visited Lincoln City ten years later, praising the community’s success.
Out of an estimated total of 50,000 people participating in the Land Run of 1889, it is projected that half quickly returned home, unable to procure a claim or failing to sustain themselves. Media outlets often manipulated information regarding the number of African-Americans who participated to suit their political objectives. These figures ranged from 1,800 to 8,000. Logan County hosted the largest African-American population in Oklahoma Territory, but many black settlers staked claims north and east of Kingfisher, known as “Blackjack Hills”, named after the indigenous oak tree.
Opportunities for Success
For a brief time, African-Americans in the territory experienced freedoms and a level of autonomy denied them in southern states. The few territorial schools were to open to male and female, black and white children because there were not enough facilities to allow segregated institutions. The 1890 Oklahoma Territorial Legislature passed a bill granting communities the “option of segregation.” Seven years later lawmakers altered it to read that schools “should” be segregated, if possible. Later, in 1901, they changed the wording to “must” be separated.
As the population increased, homogeneous communities developed in response to and enforced segregation. A Black professional and business class developed to serve the growing population and was promoted through the several black newspapers. The two territories, boasted 332 black lawyers, dentists, doctors and over 1,000 employed in manufacturing.
The Matthews family owned and operated several successful businesses in Guthrie, OT.
African-American farmers sustained a high level of success. Seventy-five percent of the black farmers in Oklahoma Territory owned and worked their personal farms. Black banks were established in towns like Boley, allowing access to financial credit and loans, often denied by other organizations. The freedom of financing granted through these banks made it possible to start businesses and manage farms without the financial hardships often endured through sharecropping.
Upon the arrival of David J. Wallace, who migrated with his family to the All-Black town of Langston, Oklahoma in 1891, he became the city’s first attorney. Wallace worked as a newspaper office manager and a teacher. He encouraged further development of African-Americans in the territory by serving in the Territorial Legislature and the immigration society. He was later instrumental in the creation of the university now known as Langston.
Green Currin joined the great “exodus” in the 1870s, moving from his home in Tennessee to Kansas, where he worked as a lawman. He made the Run of 1889, establishing a claim in Union Township, Kingfisher County. Citizens there elected Currin to serve as one of five county representatives in the First Legislative Assembly of Oklahoma Territory. He introduced Oklahoma’s first Civil Rights Legislation, known as House Bill 119. This bill contained penalties for racially motivated violence. Even though the bill failed, Currin continued to influence territorial politics. He worked as a U.S. Deputy Marshal and a member of the Board of Regents of the Colored Agricultural and Normal College, now Langston University.
A. C. Hamlin moved to Logan County with his family in 1890. In the 1908 election, he won overwhelmingly to become the first African-American elected to the State Legislature. During his term, he sponsored a bill providing $35,000 for the Black School for Deaf, Blind and Orphaned children in Taft. He also attempted to force railroad companies in Oklahoma to provide equivalent services to African-Americans. Hamlin’s third district was predominantly black, and the adoption of the grandfather clause in a constitutional amendment, preventing most African-Americans from voting, directly resulted in his failed reelection in 1910.
The Republican party, in which Green Currin, A.C. Hamlin and William Eagleson participated, dominated politics in the territory. As statehood neared, the weakening party fractured into three camps, each defined by their stance on segregation laws and civil rights. Democrats used the notion of an all-black state against Republicans while Frank Greer, proprietor of the State Capital newspaper, accused Democrats of “negrophobia.” Democratic papers responded with political cartoons illustrating the potential disasters of social equality. Republican newspapers retaliated by featuring the black crow in nearly every cartoon in 1906–07 symbolizing the ever-present, yet undecided fate of “Jim Crow” laws. Both parties agreed that the outcome of race relations in Oklahoma would influence the rest of the country.
After learning the Oklahoma Constitution contained segregation policies, violating both the Organic Act of 1890 and Enabling Act of 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt requested it be redrafted. This delayed approval of statehood further exaggerated the schism between the parties. The first bill presented to and passed by the Oklahoma State Legislature contained segregation laws.
Even though African-Americans enjoyed great advancements and relative freedoms in Oklahoma Territory, cultural biases infiltrated the political discussions, overwhelming the bid for civil rights in the new state.
If you have a story, pictures, items, or documents that could help us preserve the story of African-Americans in early Oklahoma, we would love to hear from you. We continue to try to fill the gaps but we need your help to uncover the truth of history.
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