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Endangered black history: Langston

Langston, a historically black community, remains an important piece of Oklahoma's heritage.
BY KEN RAYMOND Published: February 5, 2012

The town, however, has not prospered. Abandoned homes and businesses dot the streets, and many of the occupied structures could use extensive repairs.

Some of the decline can be attributed, oddly enough, to the success of the civil rights movement.

“The price of integration,” Fisher said, “is that it gave people so many choices that it became easier for them to drive the short distance to Guthrie, where they could shop at very nice stores. ... When they had the choice for better accommodations and cheaper prices, they went elsewhere.”

On one street, a towering 1927 home is falling into disrepair; for generations, the family that owned it maintained the house, but now, with no local relatives left to care for it, the home looks forlorn and lost.

It's made even worse by proximity to another damaged structure across the street. That building, which Ballard calls the Canterbury House, originally was a boardinghouse for Langston students. For a time, it housed the Langston municipal government, but fire tore through the building years ago. It has not been repaired. Less than a football field away is Beulahland Cemetery, which holds the graves of former slaves and Civil War soldiers.

An odd side note: In documentation provided by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, Ballard discovered that Langston's first high school was founded by the Catholic church — in Europe.

“McCabe had written to Belgium,” Ballard said, “and Belgian monks came to Langston ... (and) were instrumental in paving the way for educating my people in this territory. That's something that just kind of slipped through the cracks of history. ... It shocked me.”

Melvin B. Tolson's home

A marker outside a weathered house identifies it as the home of Melvin B. Tolson, one of America's finest educators and poets. If you don't recognize his name, perhaps you'll remember Denzel Washington's portrayal of him in “The Great Debaters.”

Under Tolson's guidance, debaters from Wiley College, a black school in Texas, took on teams at white universities — something that had never before happened.

The film highlights only that part of his career, but Tolson worked for 17 years at Langston University (from 1947-64) and was the town's mayor for three terms. He was poet laureate of the African republic of Liberia and director of Langston's Dust Bowl Theater.

“He shined like a new copper penny,” Ballard said.

The marker at his house reads, in part: “Melvin B. Tolson, 1900 — 1966. A black poet lived here.”

Indian Meridian marker

A battered obelisk stands smack dab in the middle of the Washington and Logan intersection. Perhaps 25 feet tall, its once-white surface is pocked and chipped, a casualty of time and innumerable car crashes. It's unlit, you see, and many a driver, startled to see it looming out of the rural darkness, has collided with history.

“They've bumped it and bumped it,” an observer once told The Oklahoman, “but they've never moved it.”

The marker is worth seeing for its incongruence. In truth, though, it has a purpose: It's the spot from which all distances in Oklahoma are measured. And it has stood there since 1870.

Langston University

Even now, you can see the influence of Booker T. Washington on the Langston campus.

As the 20th century dawned, there were two competing educational philosophies at play in black schools. W.E.B. Dubois thought only 10 percent of blacks — the “Talented 10” — should be educated well enough to be leaders, Ballard said.

Washington had an opposing viewpoint: Educate everyone, but give them both a diploma and a trade.

“You would obtain your degree in accounting or business or teaching,” Ballard said, “but you would also learn ... carpentry, cabinet finishing, brick masonry, stone masonry, roofing, plumbing or electrical work.”

In 1937, Langston students literally built on Washington's ideas, constructing several cottages on campus. The cottages still stand. Students don't maintain them anymore; that task has fallen to the university.

The Melvin B. Tolson Black Heritage Center, established in 1970, holds more than 7,000 volumes, a collection of artifacts and other materials. Its three major research areas are African history, black history in the U.S. and blacks in the humanities and arts.

In part, it owes its existence to Ernest Holloway, a longtime Langston University president who died in December. Holloway instructed campus recruiters to keep an eye out for items of historical significance. That effort built the collection at the Heritage Center.

The university is renowned for its work with goats. The E (Kika) de la Garza Institute for Goat Research raises and studies Angora, meat and cashmere goats on pastureland away from the actual campus, with “special emphasis on the high-producing dairy goat,” according to the university website.

The institute includes a 150-goat dairy, creamery, a field demonstration building and laboratory and office buildings. Special labs conduct milk, fiber and stable isotope analysis.


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