©2004 Hannibal B. Johnson
My book, Acres of Aspiration, recently referenced in the New York Times, explores the roots of the all-Black towns, their formation, success/failure, and prospects for the future. Take the time to learn your history.
Prominently in Kansas, then principally in Oklahoma, all-Black towns founded by Black seekers mushroomed in the post-Reconstruction era. Weary Southern migrants formed their own frontier communities, largely self-sustaining. Black towns offered hope-hope of full citizenship; hope of self-governance; and hope of full participation, through land ownership, in the American dream.
Despite an auspicious beginning, the all-Black town movement crested between 1890 and 1910. The American economy had shifted from agricultural to industrial during this period. This and a host of other social and economic factors ultimately sealed the fates of these unique, historic oases. Many perished. Most faded. Only the strong survived. The few that remain serve as testaments to the human spirit and monuments to the power of hope, faith, and community.
Both literally and figuratively, Oklahoma’s pioneering forefathers and foremothers-our ancestors-planted the trees under whose shade we now sit. The value of their legacy to us-the likes of Boley, Clearview, Langston, Red Bird, Rentiesville, and Taft can neither be ignored nor underestimated. To these trailblazers we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Oklahoma’s all-Black towns remain an important part of the African-American struggle for freedom, justice, and equality. This rich history must be reclaimed and celebrated.
Following are some highlights of Oklahoma’s all-Black town movement from Acres of Aspiration. See how many of these facts do you already know.
The Push for All-Black Towns
- Black presence in Oklahoma dates back at least as far as the Sixteenth Century, when blacks accompanied Spanish explorers to the area.
- Oklahoma was once considered as the site of an all-Black state. Senator Henry W. Blair of New Hampshire introduced a bill in favor of the proposal.
- In 1879, Blacks migrated in large numbers from the South to the Kansas and other parts of the Midwest.
- Many Blacks prospered in Oklahoma as members of the various Native American tribes.
- Black freedmen in Oklahoma were known as “Natives,” while Black immigrants from other areas, particularly the South, were called “Watchina” or “State Negroes.”
- Hannibal C. Carter helped establish the Freedmen’s Oklahoma Immigration Association in Chicago in 1881.
- Some of the “Sooners” who came to Oklahoma in the great land run of 1889 were Black.
- Historically, Oklahoma boasts more all-Black towns than any other state.
Edwin P. McCabe: Father of the All-Black Town Movement
- McCabe was for a time the highest-ranking Black elected state official in Kansas, serving two terms as state auditor (1882 -1886).
- McCabe was a prominent, popular member of the Republican Party in both Kansas and Oklahoma.
- McCabe lived for a time in Nicodemus, Kansas, one of the early and prominent all-Black towns.
- Two Black ministers, William Smith and Thomas Harris, conceived the idea of creating an all-black town in Nicodemus, Kansas.
- McCabe came to Oklahoma in 1889 at the time of the great land run.
- McCabe founded Langston, Oklahoma and the Langston City Herald newspaper, a propaganda vehicle to encourage migration to the town.
- In 1890, McCabe visited with President Benjamin Harrison, intent on convincing him of the wisdom of creating an all-Black state in Oklahoma.
- When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the first official legislative act was the passage of rigid “Jim Crow” laws. McCabe filed a lawsuit against such measures.
- McCabe died a pauper in Chicago on February 23, 1920.
- McCabe is buried in Topeka, Kansas.
Highlights of the All-Black Towns in Oklahoma
- Booker T. Washington visited Boley, Oklahoma, an all-Black town, in 1908.
- Booker T. Washington called Boley, Oklahoma “[t]he most enterprising, and in many ways the most interesting of the Negro towns in the U.S.”
- Members of the gang of Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd were killed after robbing the Boley bank and killing its president in 1932.
- Taft, Oklahoma, originally called “Twine, Indian Territory,” changed its name in 1908 in honor of President William H. Taft.
- Clearview, Oklahoma was the site of a vibrant “Back to Africa” movement led by an African known as “Chief Sam” in 1913.
- Langston, Oklahoma is the site of the farthest west of all the Black colleges.
- Rentiesville, Oklahoma is the original home of historian Dr. John Hope Franklin.
- Rentiesville, Oklahoma is the home of guitarist, singer, and noted bluesman D. C. Minner.
- Rentiesville, Oklahoma is the site of a pivotal Civil War conflict, “The Battle of Honey Springs,” also referred to as the “Gettysburg of the West.”
- The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment played a key role in the victory of the Federals over the Confederate troops in the Battle of Honey Springs.
- Lelia Foley-Davis, elected mayor of Taft in 1973, became the first Black female mayor in America.
- Red Bird, Oklahoma reportedly got its name from the fascination of its founder, E. L. Barber, with the number of red birds in the area.
The Future of the All-Black Towns
- Cultural tourism is on the rise. The remaining all-black towns are becoming tourist destinations. Both Muskogee Convention & Tourism and Rudisill North Regional Library in Tulsa conduct all-Black Town tours periodically. The Rudisill tour is set for Saturday, June 12, 2004. Contact Kimberly Johnson at Rudisill for details.
- The Oklahoma Historical Society sponsored the Black Town Exhibit, a salute to the all-Black towns.
- The Black Town Exhibit was housed for a time in the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee.
- The Oklahoma Historical Society History Center and Museum, once completed, will feature an African-American Gallery that will tell the story of the all-Black towns.
- One of the keys to the future success of the remaining all-Black towns will be the retention of youth and young adults.
Acres of Aspiration is available on my website, www.hannibalbjohnson.com, at the Greenwood Cultural Center gift shop, in bookstores, on the Web (at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com). You may also purchase a signed copy by calling me at 585-3216, 583-1361, or sending an e-mail to me at HjohnsonOK@aol.com.