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.
“Honey Springs was the first and largest battle in which Indians, blacks and whites fought with and against each other,” said Dickson. “It was the first major engagement where black troops carried the day, and perhaps the first where ex-slaves fought against their masters. Cherokees, Creeks and Seminoles filled the ranks of both armies, epitomizing a Civil War within a Civil War.”
A monument to the 1st Kansas was established by the Friends of Cabin Creek in a park overlooking Cabin Creek. Also, visitors to the All-Black Towns Exhibit can enjoy a 1st Kansas (Colored) Volunteer Infantry Regiment exhibit in the military section of the History Center.
The History Center's African American exhibit is the first and only permanent exhibit of the African-American experience in Oklahoma, said Bruce Fisher of the OHS staff. The exhibit presents rare artifacts that came from families that “had no idea they would be displayed in a museum,” said Fisher.
One is the judicial robe of Juanita Kidd Stout of Wewoka, who became the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court of any state in Pennsylvania. Another is the Medal of Honor of Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers of Tecumseh, one of seven African-Americans to receive the medal in World War II.
The All-Black Towns Tour features the lasting, historic and visible results of early black settlers in Oklahoma. Markers for visitors to the 13 surviving towns have been placed in Boley, Clearview, Tullahasee, Vernon, Langston, Grayson, Brooksville, Lima, Red Bird, Summit, Taft and Rentiesville, said Larry O'Dell, who reported the efforts of the All-Black Towns Project.
“The largest and most renowned of these was Boley,” said O'Dell. “Booker T. Washington, a nationally prominent African-American educator, visited Boley twice and submitted a positive article to Outlook magazine in 1908.”
In addition to the 13 surviving towns, Tolson listed Lincoln City, Liberty, Wellston Colony and Ferguson as All-Black Towns that were founded in Oklahoma Territory.
In Indian Territory, he listed North Fork Colored, Arkansas Colored, Canadian Colored, Gibson Station, Wybark, Marshalltown, Overton, Bailey, Foreman, Chase (Beland), Lewisville and Bookertee.
The All-Black Towns Tour, the African-American exhibit at the History Center and the Battle of Honey Springs Historic Site present spectacular opportunities for visitors to understand the significant role played by African-Americans in the history of Oklahoma.