February 8, 2004
Oklahoma Towns Born of Struggle and Hope
JOHN D. THOMAS
post-Civil War South was a brutal and oppressive place for
African-Americans. In a mass exodus, many left the region,
compelled northward by floridly worded advertisements for new
all-black settlements. One promoter described the town of
Langston, Okla., as "Fertile as ever was moistened by
nature's falling tears or kissed by heaven's sunshine."
worked. After the Civil War, there were some 50 all-black towns
founded in the Oklahoma Territories (Oklahoma became a state in
1907). The initial settlers were Indian freedmen slaves who had
been freed by their Indian masters - but later freed slaves from
the Deep South joined them in a quest to prove that blacks could
not only govern themselves but also prosper economically if given
And they did. Many of
the towns were quite successful, but they were eventually undone
by factors including the Depression, Jim Crow laws, intimidation
by whites and urbanization. Today, 13 of those original towns
still exist in Oklahoma, and they all still have all-black or
overwhelmingly black populations.
When my parents moved
to Oklahoma six years ago, I became a casual student of the
state's history. After stumbling upon this unknown chapter of
American history, I set out to visit some of these towns last
year. It was the centennial of two of three of the most viable
remaining all-black towns, more than enough of a reason to hit the
The best way to visit
the towns is through formal tours, which are organized by several
groups. The most prominent organizer is Cassandra Gaines, director
of multicultural tourism for the city of Muskogee. She has been
taking tourists to the all-black towns since 1997, and her success
has led to consulting jobs with other states interested in
developing African-American heritage tourism. Her groups travel by
bus; an expert lectures on board, and local historians meet and
a formal tour did not work for me, so Ms. Gaines helped me set up
a solo trip to Langston (founded 1890), Boley and Rentiesville
(both 1903). On a bumpy early-morning flight from Chicago to
Tulsa, I flipped through my dog-eared copy of Hannibal Johnson's
"Acres of Aspiration" (Eakin Press, 2002), a terrific
survey of Oklahoma's all-black towns. I rented a car and headed
toward Langston, site of Langston University.
The two-hour drive
took me down rural highways that crossed Chicken Creek, Polecat
Creek and Wild Horse Creek. Cattle grazed lazily next to tiny
rusting oil wells that pumped with even less vigor. The school,
founded in 1897, was named for John Mercer Langston, the first
black member of Congress from Virginia, who served from 1890 and
1891. Sitting on a hill, its red brick buildings are an abrupt
change from the pastureland.
Ms. Gaines arranged
for me to get a tour from the university's historian in residence,
Currie Ballard. In the 1890's, Langston was a vibrant place, with
several grocery stores, a blacksmith, two physicians and a
drugstore. Today, the school, a historically black university, is
essentially the town; its 2,500 students account for most of its
The campus is spacious
and immaculate. Mr. Ballard, a fount of knowledge about the town,
first took me by the chapel. A pretty, white building, it opened
1996 and is a replica of the little Presbyterian church where the
school's first classes were held. From there, we walked to the
Melvin B. Tolson Black Heritage Center. A well-known
African-American modernist poet, Tolson (1898-1966) taught at
Langston, was the town's mayor from 1954 to 1960 and was named
poet laureate of Liberia in 1947.
Officials at Langston
University say that the Tolson Center is Oklahoma's sole site
devoted to African and African-American studies. In addition to
numerous pieces of African art donated by alumni, there are also
many items related to Tolson, including his glasses, his Remington
Quiet-Riter and a photo of him signing books at a ceremony at the
White House in 1965.
When we left the
Tolson Center, Mr. Ballard pointed out a proposed spot for the
Oklahoma Museum of African-American History, scheduled to open in
2007, the state's centennial. He explained that the museum, which
is being financed with state funds and private donations, will
focus on issues including the state's civil rights struggles and
black entrepreneurism in Oklahoma. He said the museum would not
focus on the Tulsa race riots of 1921 and the rise of Tulsa's
prominent, all-black Greenwood district (also known as the Black
Wall Street) because the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa
already featured extensive exhibits on those issues.
From there, we drove
to Langston Lake. About a mile outside campus, it is a serene,
tree-lined spot with covered picnic tables and barbecue
facilities. Tours use it as a dining and relaxation area.
My final stop in
Langston was the Indian Meridian. The tall, white monument was
erected in 1922; it stands outside town on a dirt road. Mr.
Ballard explained that it signified not only the former
demarcation between Oklahoma and Indian territory, but also that
it was the state's surveying center. "Think about it,"
he said. "The center of this state is in an all-black
I headed south and
then east on the hour drive to Boley, once the crown jewel of the
all-black towns. Just before you cross Boley's city line, you'll
see a rather disconcerting road sign: "Hitchhikers May Be
Escaped Inmates." It signifies the presence of the
minimum-security John Lilley Correctional Center, which, including
inmates and employees, accounts for about 500 of its 950
There was a time when
Boley was a thriving place with more than 50 businesses, including
a bank, an ice plant, five hotels, five groceries and even two
photo studios. The African-American statesman and educator Booker
T. Washington visited in 1904 and called it "the most
enterprising, and in many ways the most interesting of the Negro
towns in the United States."
When I arrived in
April, the pretty, mostly red brick downtown was anything but
hopping, but every Memorial Day weekend it is packed when some
35,000 people attend Boley's annual all-black rodeo. Dating to
1909, the event takes place on the edge of town at the 40-acre
Boley Rodeo Grounds, which has recently been renovated.
Boley is a quiet,
charming place now, and its primary businesses are the prison and
Smokaroma, which makes of industrial barbeque cookers. The founder
of the company, Maurice Lee Sr., often cooks up barbeque for
visiting tourists, and he treated me to some amazing ribs in the
1918 Boley Community Center.
Boley is one of the
few all-black towns with a formal museum dedicated to its history.
The small collection is in a 1908 home that was named a national
historic landmark in 1975. The town is expanding the facility.
Displays include historic photos, bricks made by the Boley Brick
Company in 1912, soda bottles from the Boley Carbonated Works and
an advertisement for the 1921 "baffling western
mystery," "The Crimson Skull." According to the ad,
the film was "produced in the all colored city of Boley,
Oklahoma," with an "all-colored cast" and "30
Before leaving town, I
checked out Boley's other compelling, albeit macabre, attraction.
On Nov. 23, 1932, a trio of bandits from Pretty Boy Floyd's outfit
tried to rob the Farmers and Merchants Bank. In the ensuing
shootout, Boley's mayor and two of the gunmen were killed. The
original marble cages are still inside the bank, which has been
closed for years, and visitors can still see bullet holes in the
walls. During the rodeo and tours, it's a popular stop.
A convenient place to
stay while touring the towns is Muskogee, and I drove there from
Boley and checked into a motel. The next morning I rose early, and
after a hearty breakfast at the Speedway Grille ("The Best
Little Burger and Chili House in Muskogee"), I headed south
down Highway 69 for the short drive to Rentiesville.
On the outskirts of
town, a sign heralds Rentiesville's favorite son: "Dr. John
Hope Franklin Homeplace. Rentiesville, OK. Population 66." A
noted historian, and writer and chairman of the advisory board of
Bill Clinton's Initiative on Race from 1997 to 1999, Dr. Franklin
was born in Rentiesville in 1915 and moved to Tulsa a decade
One of the town's
other famous citizens still lives there. Rentiesville has no real
downtown anymore, but toward the end of the bumpy main road is the
D. C. Minner Down Home Blues Club. A veteran blues guitar ace and
member of the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, Mr. Minner and his
bass-playing wife, Selby, have been holding their Dusk 'til Dawn
Blues Festival there every Labor Day weekend for 13 years. The
three-day affair attracts some 7,000 fans.
Mr. Minner's club is
basically a rambling old country juke joint, with a scattering of
mismatched tables and dinette chairs and aging pictures of blues
artists lining the walls. When people visit on tours, he and his
wife open the club and play a set.
Mr. Minner was born on
this spot in 1935 and moved back in 1985. Now getting too old to
tour, he hopes to expand the place and add a museum. Mr. Minner
said the all-black towns should be preserved as an inspiration to
black people. "This is one of the few places where this
history is still left," he said.
Actually, there is
another place nearby where black history is well preserved. Just
down the road from Minner's house is the site of the Battle of
Honey Springs, also called the Gettysburg of the West. The battle,
which took place July 17, 1863, involved the First Kansas Colored
Volunteer Infantry and was the first time black troops figured
prominently in a major Civil War conflict. Some of those black
soldiers went on to help found Rentiesville.
Battlefield, administered by the Oklahoma Historical Society, is a
beautiful, sprawling place, with well-marked trails, an
information center and monthly reenactments of Civil War life;
every three years there is a re-enactment there using black
troops. At the last one, about 11,000 people visited.
The next is scheduled
for September 2005. At one end of the park stands a tall pink
granite monument dedicated to those black soldiers. It reads in
part, "At the Battle of Honey Springs, the 1st Kansas Colored
Volunteers wrote a stirring page in American history becoming one
of the first black units of the Civil War to play a key role in a
Standing alone in that
battlefield at the end of my trip, I tried to come to terms with
what I had seen. Like most Americans, I had had no idea these
all-black towns had ever existed. The trip was fascinating and the
people I met were full of hope for the future, but the dominant
theme was struggle - a struggle to escape the Deep South and to
found the towns, and now a struggle to save them.
For information on
Cassandra Gaines's tours call (888) 687-6137, extension 25.
One-day tours cost $75 a person and include breakfast, lunch and
City-County Library offers a bus tour of the historic
all-black towns on June 12. Tickets are $25. For more information
call (918) 596-7205.
The Battle of
Honey Springs Historic Site is at 1863 Honey Springs
Battlefield Road; (918) 473-5572; see www.ok-history.mus.ok.us/mus-sites/masnum02.htm.
The visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; open to 1 p.m.
Sunday. The access road to the six interpretive trails is open 8
to 5. Closed Monday.
Historical Museum can be visited by appointment; call
For information on
Langston University, visit www.lunet.edu.
all-black rodeo takes place May 29 and 30 this year, starting at 8
p.m. Admission is $7. Information, (580) 320-0031.
Clearview, another of
the remaining all-black towns, also holds a yearly all-black rodeo
the first weekend in August; it is Aug. 7 and 8 this year.
Information, (918) 583-4096.
D. C. Minner's Dusk
'til Dawn Blues Festival takes place Sept. 3 to 5. 30
bands on three stages, Information: www.dcminnerblues.com;
On March 20, the
Oklahoma Historical Society will sponsor a Civil War
Candlelight Tour at the Honey Springs Battlefield with
tours every 15 minutes from 7 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.; $3. Reservations,
JOHN D. THOMAS is
editor of Playboy.com and a contributing editor of Playboy
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