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Endangered black history: Langston

Langston, a historically black community, remains an important piece of Oklahoma's heritage.
BY KEN RAYMOND kraymond@opubco.com Published: February 5, 2012
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From a distance, Langston University could pass for a casino; little else on this lonesome stretch of State Highway 33 stands as tall or sprawls as far. But Langston has no need for a casino: It's a gamble that's been paying off for more than 100 years.

Two men founded the township of Langston on April 22, 1890. Charles Robbins, who was white, owned the land, and Edward P. McCabe, who was black, owned the vision. The men had pragmatic concerns; as land developers, they wanted to make money. But McCabe, a former state auditor in Kansas, also saw in the territories an opportunity to improve standards of living for others of his race.

“African-Americans were looking for a place to come and have a better life,” said Bruce Fisher, administrative programs officer at the Oklahoma History Center. “Life in the South was another form of slavery. Jim Crow laws were so oppressive.”

At that point, blacks didn't live under segregation laws in Indian Territory. For decades, American Indian tribes had been relocated from their traditional lands to the area surrounding and including what would become Oklahoma. With them came about 2,000 black slaves, who were freed and granted land after the Civil War.

Sense of community

The Dawes Act of 1887 further reduced American Indian land holdings in the territories, ushering in the major land run of 1889. Langston was founded a year later, and by 1892, it was flourishing. More than two dozen businesses had opened, including a bank, and McCabe had started a newspaper. The black population swelled.

“McCabe encouraged them to come,” Fisher said. “His thinking was that if we can get enough African-Americans to come to Oklahoma, then maybe we can have enough stock to influence people. … At one point, his idea was to appeal to the president to make it an all-black state.”

By 1905, Fisher said, blacks possessed about 1.5 million acres of land in the Oklahoma Territory.

“We owned more land here in Oklahoma than we did in total in the rest of the country,” he said.

With the land came a sense of community and security, said black historian Currie Ballard. After Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups flourished in some Southern states — growing, Ballard said, “like weeds.”

“You couldn't own property in some of those states,” he said. “Blacks participated in all of the land runs in this state, all of them, and a town like Langston says, ‘I can come here and own property. I can come here and educate my children through a public school system. … Eventually I've got a university. I've got my own town constable. I can vote for my own mayor and city trustees.' So this was a whole refreshing, different way of black people living.”

Segregation's effect

At least, it was for awhile. The first law passed after statehood established segregation in Oklahoma. No longer could blacks go anywhere they wanted. They had to ride black-only buses, shop at black-only stores, use black-only restrooms.

Langston University grew out of this incipient racism. In order to qualify for federal funds, states with land grant colleges had to admit blacks or provide alternative educational opportunities. When a black woman attempted to enroll in Central State University in Edmond and was denied, Ballard said, it set the stage for blacks to demand their own college.

In 1897, the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal College — which would later become Langston University — was established in Langston.

“This institution was able to educate young black men and women primarily in two fields: teaching and agriculture,” Ballard said. “It mirrored Oklahoma State University as far as curriculum.”

The university's first president was Inman Page, an influential black educator, born into slavery, who was one of the first blacks to attend Brown University. During his 17 years in Langston, the student population increased from 40 to more than 600, according to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. A memorial marker stands on campus, not far from the Centennial Plaza, where visitors can see bronze busts of each Langston University president.

Among Langston's famous alums are Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher (Bruce Fisher's mother), the first black admitted to the University of Oklahoma's law school; Clara Luper, who led nonviolent protests at Oklahoma City drugstore lunch counters; Dr. Ernest Holloway, who as its president brought Langston University back from the edge of collapse; and Marques Haynes, one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

The following are some places and features to check out in Langston.

City of Langston

Langston takes its name from John Mercer Langston, a prominent 19th-century black abolitionist, lawyer, politician and public speaker.

The town and university have enjoyed disparate fortunes. The university is sparkling clean; it even has its own entrance directly off the highway.

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