IN 1908, A.C. Hamlin, R-Guthrie, became the first black man elected to the Oklahoma Legislature. On Tuesday, another black Republican, state Rep. T.W. Shannon of Lawton, will formally become speaker of the House during an organizational session.
Shannon stresses policy and conservative ideology rather than race, but as the first black Oklahoma House speaker — and only black Republican leading a legislative chamber in the country — he'll get national attention reflecting positively on Oklahoma.
The same can't be said of reaction to Hamlin's legislative tenure a century ago.
On Jan. 11, 1909, the Norman Daily Independent ran a piece saying Guthrie deserved to lose its status as Oklahoma's state capital because its citizens had elected “a coal black Negro,” calling Hamlin “the dark spot” of the Legislature.
“We knew Guthrie was a Negro town, but thought there was at least one white republican in the district which could have represented the citizens with some distinction. It would have shown up a little better in their fight to retain the capitol in that city,” the piece stated.
When Hamlin sought re-election, the May 5, 1910 edition of The Oklahoma Guide, a black newspaper, declared he had “served his people well, as well as he could under the circumstances, as well as any republicans could, with such brutal democratic majority.” The paper recommended Hamlin as someone who would “defend the rights of his people against the onslaught of the hayseed members who are blind by colorphobia.”
Other papers took a different view. On June 29, 1910, the Anadarko Daily Democrat had this to say about Hamlin's re-election bid and other races involving black candidates: “Thus the menace of Negro ascendancy on the East side passes the boundary and threatens every citizen of the West side. Six weeks will determine finally whether Oklahoma is to be Negroid or Anglo-Saxon. The Democratic Party will fill the political morgue with Negroes or the Republican Party will fill the legislature of Oklahoma with Negroes.”
To curtail black voting and Republican power, Democrats successfully advanced a constitutional amendment requiring a literacy test to vote and banning anyone from voting who had not done so before January 1, 1866, or was not descended from someone voting before that date.
On Sept. 8, 1910, the New-State Tribune in Oklahoma City approvingly declared the amendment was designed to “check ‘Negro domination'” and “eliminate Negro members of the legislature.”
Sadly, the amendment worked as intended. On Nov. 26, 1910, the Shawnee Daily Herald reported Hamlin lost his race by just 16 votes “when the county election board refused to receive returns from five precincts where a heavy Negro vote was cast.”
Hamlin died in 1912, and there's no way to know what he would think of the modern Democratic and Republican parties. But having been derided as a legislative “black spot,” does anyone doubt that Hamlin would take pride in seeing Shannon preside over a chamber that's still predominantly white?
All Oklahomans should do the same. It's a sign of enormous racial progress that race isn't an issue in Shannon's ascent.
And should you hear a loud whirring noise upon Shannon's leadership election, pay it no mind. That's just the sound of long-dead racists spinning in their graves.