The All-Black towns of Oklahoma represent a unique chapter in American history. Nowhere else, neither in the Deep South nor in the Far West, did so many African-American men and women come together to create, occupy, and govern their own communities. From 1865 to 1920 African Americans created more than 50 identifiable towns and settlements in Oklahoma, some of short duration, some that still exist, and many that had an ongoing impact on the live of their residents and families for generations to come.
Thirteen of the Black towns still remain; some are barely holding on, while others, thanks to surrounding industry, seem positioned to live on.
All-Black towns grew in Indian Territory after the Civil War when former slaves of the Five Indian Tribes in Oklahoma settled together for mutual protection and economic security. When the U.S. government forced American Indians to accept individual land allotments, most Indian “freedmen” chose land next to other African Americans. They created cohesive, prosperous farming communities that could support businesses, schools, and churches, eventually forming towns. Many African Americans migrated to Oklahoma, considering it a kind of “promised land.”
When the Land Run of 1889 opened yet more “free” land to non-Indian settlement, African Americans from the Old South rushed in. E. P. McCabe, a former state auditor of Kansas, helped found Langston and encouraged African Americans to settle in that All-Black town. To further his cause, McCabe established the Langston City Herald and circulated it, often by means of traveling agents, throughout the South.
McCabe hoped his tactics would create an African-American political power block in Oklahoma Territory. Other African-American leaders had a vision of an All-Black state. Although this dream was never realized, many All-Black communities sprouted and flourished in the rich topsoil of the new territory and, after 1907, the new state.
In those towns, African Americans lived free from the prejudices and brutality found in other racially mixed communities of the Midwest and the South. African Americans in Oklahoma and Indian Territories would create their own communities for many reasons. Escape from discrimination and abuse would be a driving factor. They could depend on neighbors for financial assistance and having open markets for crops. Arthur Tolson, a pioneering historian of Blacks in Oklahoma, asserts that many African Americans turned to “ideologies of economic advancement, self-help, and racial solidarity.”
Oklahoma Land Rush
Things changed for Blacks in Oklahoma with the Oklahoma Land rush of 1893. It was the largest land run in history, with more than 100,000 people pouring into the Cherokee Strip of Oklahoma to claim valuable land that had once belonged to Native Americans. When the government had forced Native Americans to settle on the land, it was seen as worthless desert. However, new farming methods made the land much more valuable.
The influx of White settlers brought Jim Crow Laws that were immediately instituted after Oklahoma became a state. White distrust also limited the growth of these All-Black towns. As early as 1911 Whites in Okfuskee County attempted to block further immigration. Several of these White farmers signed oaths pledging to “never rent, lease, or sell land in Okfuskee County to any person of Negro blood, or agent of theirs; unless the land be located more than one mile from a White or Indian resident.” To further stem the Black migration to eastern Oklahoma a similar oath was developed to prevent the hiring of “Negro labor.”
Events of the 1920s and 1930s spelled the end for most Black communities. The All-Black towns in Oklahoma were, for the most part, small agricultural centers that gave nearby African-American farmers a market. Prosperity generally depended on cotton and other crops. The Great Depression devastated these towns, forcing residents to go west and north in search of jobs. These flights from Oklahoma caused a huge population decrease in black towns.
As people left, the tax base withered, putting the towns in financial jeopardy. In the 1930s many railroads failed, isolating small towns in Oklahoma from regional and national markets. As a result, many of the Black towns could not survive.
During lean years Whites could/would not extend credit to African Americans, creating an almost impossible situation for Black farmers and businessmen to overcome. Even one of the most successful towns, Boley, declared bankruptcy in 1939.