Image from a pictorial exhibit of 25 colorized early 1900 to 1940s images of Boley, the largest of the All-Black towns, also known as “the crown jewel” (organized by the Coltrane Group).
When we think of Oklahoma history, we tend to think of the Sooners, the oil boom, or the birth of western swing music. But one unique feature of the state is its large number of historical all- black towns. In fact, as early as the mid-nineteenth century and through the turn of the twentieth-century, African Americans settled over 20 towns throughout Oklahoma–more than any other U.S. state. Although many of these towns no longer exist, their legacy remains an important part of the African American struggle for freedom, independence, and prosperity.
The settlement of Oklahoma’s all-black towns is inextricably tied to the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Native American tribes from the southeastern part of the country to Indian Territory. Many African-Americans who were held as slaves by the tribes made the journey to Indian Territory, as well.
All-Black towns grew in Indian Territory after the Civil War when the former slaves of the Five Civilized Tribes settled together for mutual protection and economic security. These former slaves, or “Freedmen,” founded farming communities that supported a variety of businesses. Between 1865 and 1920, African-Americans created more than 50 all-black towns and settlements throughout Indian Territory.
The Land Run of 1889 brought even more African American settlers to the unassigned lands that now make up the state of Oklahoma. Newspapers began sprouting up in the new communities, and the towns were advertised throughout the southern United States as “promise lands” for black settlers.
Black Towns Map. (Tulsa Historical Society).
For several decades, these all-black towns provided their residents with lives free of the regular racial brutality and prejudice often experienced by blacks living in racially-mixed communities. Residents could depend on and support each other. Black-owned farms, schools, and businesses took root.
Unfortunately, shortly after statehood in 1907, the Oklahoma State legislature passed a series of statutes that would come to be known as Jim Crow laws, essentially enforcing racial segregation and, in some cases, inciting racial violence. Many African Americans became disheartened by this turn of events, and large numbers migrated to the west, as well as to Canada and Mexico.
The Great Depression also took a toll on the all-black farming towns, forcing many residents to find work elsewhere. As people left, taxes dwindled, putting the towns in financial jeopardy. Throughout the 1930s many railroads failed, isolating a number of rural towns in Oklahoma and cutting them off from their market. As a result, many of the black towns simply could not survive. Today, only thirteen all-black towns still exist, but their importance in Oklahoma’s history remains.
By Tara Aveilhe | Administrator for the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities & TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies
Presented as part of a year-long exploration of the theme of Homelands, the Center’s production of Oklahoma! In Concert will offer a unique perspective on the state’s complicated racial history and the thriving black communities that have too often been written out of our history and popular culture. Featuring an all-black cast with minimal stage production, our presentation of this classic Roger’s and Hammerstein musical will offer a fresh look at this tale of love in the Heartland. The show will be produced by Rebecca Ungerman and directed by Machele Miller Dill. Stay updated on our Facebook event page!
8:00 pm | March 30 & 31, 2018 | Gilcrease Museum, 1400 N. Gilcrease Museum Rd., Tulsa
Tickets available through Eventbrite | $6.50
Johnson, Hannibal B. “The All-Black Towns in Oklahoma.” The All-Black Towns in Oklahoma, 31 Dec. 2004, www.hannibalbjohnson.com/the-all-black-towns-in-oklahoma/.
O’Dell, Larry. “ALL-BLACK TOWNS.” All-Black Towns | The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, Oklahoma Historical Society, 2009, www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=AL009.