For more than two centuries, African-Americans have played a wide variety of major roles in the development of Oklahoma's history — settling all-black towns, fighting in Civil War battles and developing newspapers, businesses, political and educational leaders, and above all, participating in the extended battle for civil rights.
The 1st Kansas (Colored) Volunteer Infantry Regiment was the first black Union unit to see combat in the Civil War. Settling all-black towns also began to grow in the 1860s and continued into the 20th century.
The Oklahoma Historical Society started its All-Black Towns Project in 1998, establishing the history of all-black towns and the “In Pursuit of the Dream” African-American exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City.
OHS reported that African-Americans founded or helped found more than 50 towns in Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory. These included 27 listed by Arthur Tolson in his book, “The Negro in Oklahoma Territory.” Of these, 13 towns have survived and have been marked for the All-Black Towns Tour now under way by the Historical Society, said Larry O'Dell of the OHS staff.
OHS also coordinated a 10-year effort to study and memorialize the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 with an investment of almost $3 million appropriated by the Oklahoma Legislature, said Dr. Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Historical Society. As a result, the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park is now open in downtown Tulsa for the public to reflect on this tragic event in Oklahoma history.
“The story of African Americans in Oklahoma history has to be considered on two levels,” said Blackburn. “Because of segregation and the denial of basic American freedoms for much of our shared history, we need to understand the history of the struggle for civil rights. On the other hand, blacks have played an integral part of the bigger historic narrative, from cowboys to soldiers to statesmen and entrepreneurs.”
The John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, now owned by the city of Tulsa, covers a city block. It features panels, gardens and a monumental sculpture called the Hope Tower, said Blackburn. Nearby attractions offer other stories of the African-American experience, including the Greenwood Cultural Center, buildings on historic Greenwood Avenue and the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.
All these accomplishments go back to the 1st Kansas (Colored) Regiment, which helped the Union win two significant battles. The 1st Kansas helped win the First Battle of Cabin Creek near what is now Vinita on July 1-2, 1863, and defeated two Texas Cavalry regiments in the Battle of Honey Springs on July 17, 1864.
The Battle of Honey Springs (also called Elk Creek) was a turning point in the Civil War, said Kathy Dickson, OHS director of Museums and Historic Sites.