Up until the Oklahoma land run in 1889, the only African-Americans who resided in the present state of Oklahoma were those owned by the Five Civilized Tribes. From the 1830s, until the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Five Civilized Tribes owned 8, 276 black slaves. After the war, the Five Tribes--Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee and Seminole--granted freedom to their slaves, and gave each an allotment of land within the different tribal nations. Also, all but the Chickasaws granted each former slave tribal citizenship. For close to thirty years, African-Americans and Native Americans co-existed peacefully in their respective communities in Indian Territory, which encompassed the eastern and southern part of the present state of Oklahoma. With the opening of land in Oklahoma Territory, there were a significant number of emigrants looking for new economic opportunities in the Twin Territories.
Indian Territory saw a substantial rise in black settlers. In the 1890 census, the number of blacks in Indian Territory had increased to 18,636 free citizens. To the north of Indian Territory, in Oklahoma Territory, the 1890 census enumerated 13,177 blacks. Many of these emigrants had made the run or migrated into the Territory after the land opening. Most of these blacks lived in Oklahoma City and Guthrie. The 1907 census indicated that the some blacks migrated south from Oklahoma City into Cleveland County, where the census enumerated 384 blacks living in the county. The census numbers also indicated that 3,750 blacks residence in Oklahoma City; there were no blacks residing in Norman.
Norman was a dedicated “whites only” town for the first half of the nineteenth century. The attitude of Norman citizens concerning blacks was one shared by a majority of those residing in Oklahoma Territory. The racial animus became more hardened as the twin territories moved toward statehood in 1907. There was a fear among whites that in a new state there would be equal opportunities for black citizens to gain political office and therefore gain the same rights and opportunities offered to whites. The negative attitude against blacks was reinforced daily in local newspapers. In perusing the Daily Oklahoman, the Norman Transcript or the Lexington Leader, articles center around blacks being accused of killing a white person and ultimately being lynched, most of the time without a trial. The Norman Transcript related a story about a black man’s crime in Georgia, and the mob, who apprehended the man and lynched him, did more than execute a simply lynching; the man was terribly mutilated before and after his death. These types of articles reinforced a growing negative racial attitude about black men and women.
So much so that when a black man, Ben Dickerson, was accused of robbing and killing a white man in Oklahoma City in January 1914, the Oklahoma County sheriff feared that a mob would form and apprehend the man and lynch him. The sheriff asked Norman to house the man in the Cleveland County jail. After Dickerson arrived in Norman, Norman officials thought it was best to move him farther south to Purcell. The McClain County sheriff locked Dickerson up in the Purcell jail. Very early the next morning, five cars carrying eight men and one woman arrived at the Purcell jail. The jailer did not protest the mobs threats of violence; he released Dickerson into the custody of the mob. The five cars drove north on highway 77 traveling toward Norman. However, before reaching Norman, the cars turned east on a road out of Noble. One of the cars stopped at a farmhouse, a man got out and asked the farmer if they could buy a rope, telling the farmer they needed it to pull a car. The farmer sold them the rope. Later in the afternoon, Dickerson was found hanging from a bridge that was one mile south and one and a half miles east of Noble. Evidently no one saw the faces of the people in the cars as they drove slowly through Norman on their way back to Oklahoma City. Ben Dickerson lay “in state” at the Meyer and Meyer and Morris funeral home in Norman. Hundreds of curious people lined up to view the man, which “had a bullet hole in the head and body.”
African-Americans presented a dilemma for whites; southerners needed black representation but they did not want blacks to vote. Decades before the Civil War, the political issue was how the southern state would be counted in both the Electoral College and in representation in congress. There were more whites in the North than the South so an agreement was made, where southern slaves were counted as a 3/5 of a human being. In this manner, the South gained population to be counted in representation in the United States Congress. The issue in the South after the Civil War was similar. The South now had a larger representation with new black citizens. African-Americans counted in state representation in the Electoral College and in congress, but there still was a move by southerners, including Oklahomans, to limit black votes. An article in The Norman Democrat Topic stated that it was fine to count blacks for the Electoral College but at the same time, limiting their vote.
Before statehood, two black men served in the lower house of the Oklahoma Territorial legislature—Green I. Currin of Kingfisher , and lawyer, D.J Wallace, of Guthrie.
In 1909, the first black man was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives. His election sent out an alarm to whites, who feared African-Americans would gain legislative power, which would be a signal to blacks throughout the country that Oklahoma was receptive to African-American equality. This thought was summed up in the Norman Daily Independent. In an article on February 13, 1909, entitled “Scheme to Make Oklahoma Black,” the editor wrote “The fact that there is a negro in the legislature of Oklahoma is causing the country to look to the state with the idea that it is ok for them in the land of promise.” The article continues with the observation that the black community hired a black lawyer to investigate Oklahoma Jim Crow laws with the goal of finding them unconstitutional. The thought was that if Jim Crow laws were held unconstitutional “African-Americans would flock to Oklahoma in a new colonization effort.”
By 1910, with four black candidates running for the Oklahoma House, whites called for measures to restrict the black vote. There was a movement for the newly formed Oklahoma legislature to vote in the “grandfather clause” as a requirement for voting. The grandfather clause was a southern ploy to keep blacks from voting. If a person’s grandfather voted in 1860, then that person could vote. In 1860, most southern blacks were slaves; they did not vote in the 1860 election. Universally, newspapers referred to the dilemma of blacks holding office, and having a place in Oklahoma politics and society as the “Negro Problem.”
The Norman Democrat Topic advocated abolishing the 15th amendment and to solve the problem, “get rid of the darkie, it is the physical presence of the Negro that constitutes the problem.” Some had the thought that they could deport blacks, while others thought that if the blacks were relocated, just a few, to locations all over the country, that would relieve the “racial conditions in the cotton states, diminishing the racial menace everywhere”, and give the “problem” to those who lived in the North. By so doing, the influence of the black vote would be minimal.
The first years after statehood in 1907 were an optimistic time for many African-Americans who believed that they shared equality with all citizens of Oklahoma. They soon learned that they had little power with which to maintain their rights given to them in the reconstruction amendments to the United States Constitution, which allowed equal rights and the franchise. The first blow to African-Americans equal status was the Supreme Court case of Plessey vs. Ferguson in 1896, which declared the separate but equal status between white and black America. Plessey vs. Ferguson set segregation in motion and made it possible for the states to implement separate accommodation for black and white. The first legislation before the Oklahoma Senate in 1907 provided separate accommodations in transportation. Railroad companies now had to provide separate cars and waiting rooms for black and white passengers. In Norman, the Santa Fe Depot installed separate restrooms, separate drinking fountains and separate waiting areas. Other laws passed in the first decade after statehood prohibited black and white marriages and separate schools for black and white children. Other segregation laws followed including separate telephone booths, bathhouses, and, oddly, mines.
The problem with the idea that separate facilities were equal was that most black facilities were not equal, especially schools for black children. Black teachers, many with education degrees from the all black college of Langston University, staffed the black schools. Also, the Oklahoma Association of Negro Teachers supported black teachers. But, the schools were lacking in many things such as equipment, books, and the facilities were inferior to school facilities for white children. The Oklahoma legislature did not appropriate the same funds to black schools as they did for white schools. There were several black communities in Cleveland County, two consolidated school districts for black children—Union and Stella. In 1922, there was also a new school for black students, Little Brown Valley School. The schools represented 30 families; summer school attendance was around 45 students, winter enrollment was 75 students. The black settlements were about 16 miles from Norman.
By the 1920s, Norman, Oklahoma had hardened into a white supremacy community, no blacks were allowed in town after the sun set. Norman became a Sundown Town, one of many across the nation in the first half of the twentieth century. There were no city ordnances or regulations, which stated that blacks had to be out of town by sunset. Norman residence made it clear through intimidation and some violence that blacks would be safer outside the city limits. An incident in 1922 demonstrates the racial animus for blacks in Norman. A band scheduled to perform at a Norman high school dance, at the Davis Hall, a dance hall above W.C. Parkers Confectionary in downtown Norman, canceled their performance. In the bands place, Singre Smith’s Negro Orchestra agreed to perform. Two hundred Norman citizens protested the black musicians playing in Norman by throwing bricks through the windows of Parker’s confectionary down stairs from the dance hall. The orchestra, however, continued to perform until 11 pm. Male high school students escorted the musicians to the Interurban and protected them until they got on the train to Oklahoma City.
The Norman Ku Klux Klan believed that they needed to make a statement in regard to the mob violence and the damage to Mr. Parker’s dance hall. In the Norman Transcript, a member of the Klan stated that “Mr. Parker brought the band to Norman and they do not condemn him for that for the reason that while Negros are not permitted to live or work in Norman yet from time to time they have to come here for the purpose of entertainment.” But, the Klan went on to make it clear that the town would uphold white supremacy and announced that, “From now on no Negroes will be permitted to reside, work or entertain in the City of Norman and no Negro will be permitted to remain in Norman after the sun goes down.”
The beginning of the end of white supremacy in Norman, began with World War One in 1918. African-Americans from across the country entered the armed services. However, the United States Military maintained segregation; blacks mostly served as cooks, janitors, kitchen helpers, basically in the same types of jobs offered to them in their communities before entering the service. But, what the service did do was to move African Americans out of the South, and many blacks, who did not enter the military, moved north to work in war related industries. This demographic movement opened up the world-view of many African-Americans. Their world was expanded even more in World War Two. More blacks entered the service and even more moved to factories in the northern states like Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The citizens of Norman saw the first crack in the white exterior of their town when twenty thousand service men and women arrived in Norman in 1941 to occupy two naval bases. Black service men, in a still segregated armed services, arrived in town with other service men and women. The Norman Transcript article stated that “Norman’s unwritten law against negroes living in the city stands little chance of surviving the war, residents of Cleveland county naval training center believe.”
The Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s was made up of men and women, who had inherited a determination to fight for equal rights and justice from parents and grandparents, who had moved out of the South during the two world wars. This generation of young adults protested against inequality, and the Vietnam war that few young people believed was theirs to fight. Students at universities across the country protested the war, while blacks in the cities fought for better economic opportunities. These two groups of young adults came together to form the civil rights movement that resulted in new civil rights legislation. The civil rights movement and student protest was also seen at the University of Oklahoma. Like other universities across the county, students at the University of Oklahoma in Norman protested the Vietnam War and fought for equality of all people. It can not be said that the protests at the University in Norman was as big and influential as the protest at University of California campuses, especially at Berkeley, but the protest and an era of people calling for change ended Norman’s attachment to an all white town.
The crack in the all white town was made larger when the first black family purchased a home in Norman in 1967. Professor George Henderson and his family moved from Detroit to Norman, to accept a job at the University of Oklahoma. Henderson accepted the position on the condition that he and his family would be able to buy a house within the city of Norman. It was a brave move on the part of the Henderson family. In Detroit, a city with 25 % black citizens, the Henderson’s were part of the black community. In Norman, there was no black community. Over time, more blacks moved to Norman and the racial attitudes began to change. That change, however, was not immediate. In 2018, the fight continues. In changing the name of Debarr Street, a street named after Edwin Debarr, a former Chaplin and high-ranking official of the Ku Klux Klan in 1922, moves the citizens of Norman toward a more inclusive community.