Creek Freedmen and the Formation of All-Black Towns in Oklahoma
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African Americans established more than thirty all-black towns in the southern mid-west region of the United States (Jessee 2006: 81). In these autonomous black towns, also called “maroon communities”, blacks adapted to the “local environment, utilizing native horticultural and construction techniques” (Braund 1991: 634). With the benefit of new land grants these small communities grew into major centers with banks, post offices, trading depots, churches, schools, railways and multiple businesses. Many of these towns generated a significant amount of wealth, such as Boley, Oklahoma, known as the “largest and wealthiest Negro City in the World”. Booker T. Washington visited Boley which claimed to be a safehaven away from racial prejudice and named it the finest black town in the world.
The exact social and political structure within these all-black towns remains a mystery as there are no firsthand accounts documenting life within the towns (Braund 1991: 634). Former slaves were attracted to these towns as an opportunity to make a fresh start for themselves in property ownership, which provided economic freedom as well as an escape from racial oppression. From the opening up of “unassigned lands” in Oklahoma for settlement in the 1870s until the year of Oklahoma statehood in 1907, the African American population in Indian Territory quadrupled, from 19,000 to more than 80,000 as the Oklahoma freedmen were joined by other African American immigrants and family members (Jessee 2006: 81; Chang 2010: 152).
However, these figures are still widely contested and thought to under represent the true number of African-American immigrants settling in the Creek Nation and the Neighboring Seminole Nation after Emancipation (Chang 2010: 152). In that same thirty seven year period, the white population rose from 109,400 to 538,500, while the Indian population remained stable at roughly 61,000 (Chang 2010: 152). This surge in population pressure from both African-Americans and whites created tremendous concern among the Creek nation, who found it increasingly difficult to compete for land resources in their own territories.
Most of the Freedmen came from southern states, fleeing disfranchisement, a depression economy, and increased white violence (Jessee 2006: 81). Arthur Tolson, a leading scholar of black history in Oklahoma, asserts that many African-Americans after emancipation turned to “ideologies of economic advancement, self-help, and racial solidarity” (Tolson 1970: 19). In practice this new ideology led Freedmen to choose lands close to other African-Americans, which eventually lead to the creation of self-sufficient communities. Therefore, while race was becoming a determining factor in the distribution of land allotments, appropriations, voting rights, and social relations, early African-American migrants had opportunities to form business and social relations with Native Americans, mixed bloods, and whites (Jessee 2006: 91). According to Tolson, the all black towns in Oklahoma territory were established as “black national bastions in the face of severe white prejudice and discriminatory practices” (Tolson 1970:22). Despite the increasing industrialization of America, these towns remained predominantly rural farming communities without a strong economic base, which served more as a small town shelter for blacks instead of urban centers (Tolson 1970: 22).
These towns continued to grow in population until the 1920s and 1930s, when the Great Depression led to the demise of a majority of the black towns. Out of the original thirty three black towns established in Oklahoma, by 1952, only nineteen all-black towns were in existence (Tolson 1970: 22). One was in the former Oklahoma Territory, named Langston City, while the others were in Indian Territory (Tolson 1970:22). The towns that are still in existence today are Boley, Brooksville, Clearview, Grayson, Langston, Lima, Redbird, Rentiesville, Summit, Taft, Tatums, Tullahassee, and Vernon. The largest and most renowned of these was Boley (Tolson 1970: 22).
Other sites that discuss the legacy of All-black communities