Oklahoma was settled early on by American Indians removed from their lands in the eastern United States, and their slaves who accompanied them. With its wide-open spaces, Oklahoma didn’t have the racial-bias trappings of the old South, and their eventually freed Black slaves were able to own land and carve out a living in the unsettled parts of Oklahoma.
“It was seen as an economic opportunity to acquire land, and it was seen as a way to get away from the kind of legislation that was being passed in the Deep South,” Hannibal Johnson, a Tulsa attorney who has written several books about the state’s Black history, told a reporter with the Oklahoman newspaper .
“Everybody had a shot then,” he said.
At one time, lawmakers considered making Oklahoma an all-Black state.
Federal legislation pushed by the former state auditor of Kansas, E.P. McCabe, asked Congress to designate Oklahoma as a Black state. McCabe’s push for what was then called “Negro Colonization” got as far as a congressional committee, and McCabe discussed it with President Benjamin Harrison.
McCabe participated in the Land Run, staked his claim and went on to establish the area near Langston University.
About the same time, Oklahoma societies and land clubs were being formed in places such as St. Louis and parts of Kansas. Promise of all-Black towns in Oklahoma brought in people from Southern states.
In addition, Black nationalists similar to those who participated in Liberia colonization efforts also sought opportunities in Oklahoma, Johnson said.
In a New York Times article from 1890, Oklahoma was called the “New Mecca,” and the next “Beulah Land.”
As White settlers moved into Oklahoma, however, tensions mounted between Whites and Blacks.
Dreams dashed by racism
When McCabe, who was Black, attempted to run for governor, his life was threatened, according to a New York Times article from Feb. 28, 1890.
The article goes on to talk about the increased racial tension between Black business owners and members of the Oklahoma Immigration Association, a White group fighting against the movement for a Black state, according to the news article.
The heyday of Black colonization in Oklahoma ended just after statehood in 1907.
“Unfortunately, at statehood, the first piece of legislation was to segregate rail cars and waiting facilities,” he said.
“That was sort of, in a way, a nail in the coffin of the dreams of Oklahoma as a promised land for African-Americans,” Johnson said.