The African-American Journey in Oklahoma

John Womack, Norman historian, did a great service to the Norman community when he took it upon himself to research, write, and publish many aspects of our local history. One small pamphlet entitled “Blacks in Oklahoma, The First Year” provides a statistical analysis of African-Americans in 1890, a year after the land run.  By looking at available statistical resources, Womack provides an historical view of black settlement after the initial opening of lands in 1889.   From Womack’s study, at appears that there were few blacks in and around Norman, Oklahoma in 1890. Of the blacks, who lived in the six-counties that encompassed the unassigned lands,  there were around 64,000 whites and 4,000 blacks.  Of these 4000 blacks, Womack estimates that 43% migrated to Oklahoma between May and December of 1889 and 47% came during the first six months of 1890.  In breaking the numbers down by county, Womack found only eight blacks residing in Cleveland County and no blacks residing in Norman, one of the major cities in the county. He also determined that there were no black land claimants in Cleveland County in April 1889. The towns with black population in 1890 were Guthrie, Kingfisher and Oklahoma City.

Even though Cleveland County and Norman did not have black citizens on the day of settlement on April 22, 1889, there were blacks who settled around Norman, in particular in the Chickasaw Nation to the south of the Canadian River, a stones throw from the town of Norman.  African Americans were settled in Indian Territory at least forty years before the Federal Government opened up the unassigned lands in Central Oklahoma. Their journey to Indian Territory starts in the 1830s with the removal of five Indian Nations from the American Southeast to Indian Territory in the present state of Oklahoma.

African Americans first arrived in Indian Territory, in the present state of Oklahoma, in the 1830s as slaves to the Choctaws, Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles and Chickasaws.  Many members of the Five Tribes were slave owners, who engaged in cotton farming, some owning large plantations similar to their white neighbors in the Southeast.  The desire of whites in the Southeast for better cotton land, land owned by members of the Five Tribes, put pressure on President Andrew Jackson to remove the Southeastern tribes to Indian Territory. Ultimately, the United States federal Indian Removal act of 1830, was the beginning of the removal of the Five Tribes to Indian Territory. The Five Tribes immigrated to the west at different times. Many came across in what historians call the “Trail of Tears.” Some tribes, like the Chickasaws, removed themselves from 1835 into the 1850s. 

Once in Indian Territory, members of the Five Tribes rebuilt their society, keeping the same culture they enjoyed in their traditional southern homelands. Many were small farmers; some had one or two black slaves to help in working their farms. A very few, mostly whites who married into the Five Tribes, thereby enjoying tribal membership and allotment of land, established large plantations and had a numerous black slaves.   

During the Civil War in the 1860s, many in the Five Tribes sympathized and fought for the southern cause. After the defeat of the South in 1864, the federal government negotiated treaties with the tribes in Indian Territory. The tribes agreed to certain terms regarding the former slaves, now freedmen living in Indian Territory. They agreed that freedmen would receive land allotments and all but the Chickasaws agreed that the former slaves would become members of the tribes thereby enjoying the benefits of tribal citizenship.

The freedmen in Indian Territory were given the economic opportunities to provide for  themselves and their families.  Some tribes also provided education for freedmen’s children. Also, the federal government provided schools for training for black youth. This was not the case in the Southern United States, where reconstruction of the South did very little to economically enhance the lives of former slaves and their families.  

 When President Benjamin Harrison opened Indian Territory to settlement with a series of land runs beginning in 1889 in what today is central Oklahoma, some blacks participated in the land run or they came into the territory shortly after.   In the 1890s, eight percent of the population was African American. Oklahoma Territory created a public school system for blacks in Oklahoma City and Kingfisher. Some of the early schools were both black and white.   

Soon after the 1889 land run, Edward McCabe bought 160 acres of land eleven miles east of Guthrie, Oklahoma. On that acreage, he established the town of Langston after a black United States congressman from Virginia. McCabe then established a newspaper called the Langston Herald in order to publicize his all black town. In 1897, the Territorial Legislature created Langston University, a land grant school, with a primary focus on teacher training. Ultimately there were 27 black towns in Oklahoma. In these towns and communities, blacks established the same economic and cultural programs as their white neighbors in Oklahoma Territory. Towns with the most black residents were Wagoner, Ardmore, Guthrie, Muskogee, Tulsa and Oklahoma City. In these communities they owned and operated cotton gins, saloons, hotels, blacksmith shops, restaurants, and barbershops, to name just a few. These cities also had a professional class of blacks, of  lawyers, doctors, dentists, ministers and teachers. Like their white neighbors, black social institutions evolved around churches that not only offered church services, but picnics, plays and family outings. Black men also belonged to fraternal organizations like the Knights of Pythias and the Masons. Their wives belonged the related women’s groups.

Race relations in the twin territories after the Civil War was what one author described as “relatively easy.” There was a close relationship between races through church, social events and public establishments. By the end of the 19th century, race relations were more difficult because of laws that promoted segregation. Segregation in Oklahoma began in 1890 when the Territorial legislature adopted a policy of local option that permitted counties to determine whether there would be segregated institutions. The United States Supreme Court case of 1896, Plessey vs. Ferguson, created equal but separate institutions and divided Oklahoma society along racial lines. After the passage of Plessey vs. Ferguson, the territorial legislature took a stronger view and required total segregation.

In 1906, The United State Congress passed an enabling act that set in motion the creation on one state from the two territories. A constitutional convention was called for the creation of a state constitution. Concerned black citizens understood that they would have to work hard to keep their franchise and equality in the new state government. Black leaders turned to the Republican Party, the political party that most blacks belonged to at that time, to help them protect their rights under the laws of a new state. Most of the delegates at the constitutional convention in Guthrie, however, were democrats, who were closely identified with segregation.  

Segregation was a key issue in writing the state’s constitution and most of the delegates to the constitutional convention were democrats led by William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray. Murray held strong anti-black views. He and most of the delegates wanted total segregation and they upheld southern Jim-Crow laws.  The problem was that to write segregation into the state constitution, which would have to pass by Republican President, Theodore Roosevelt, and a Republican Congress, could mean a denial of statehood. C.N. Haskell, who would later become Oklahoma’s first governor, convinced the delegates that they did not have to include the segregation articles in the constitution, such segregation laws could be added later. The constitution did, however, provide for a segregated school system, right to limit franchise, and specifications on who was considered black.