For the final part of our ghost town series we resurrect the history behind not one but dozens of settlements spread throughout the state. The all black towns of Oklahoma. KOSU’s Quinton Chandler reports most of these towns were small unorganized rural communities that are almost all dead and gone. But there are a few left to give us a hazy picture of the past.
Today, there are only a handful of the original all black towns still around. Oklahoma used to be home to more of them than anywhere else in the country. They stretched across more than half the state, from Blaine over to Sequoyah County and from Noble down to Bryan County in the south.
“One of the things that African Americans faced after the Civil War and after the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877 was renewed hostilities against them in the Deep South,” says author Hannibal Johnson. “There were a number of folks including E.P. McCabe who came to Oklahoma during the land run in 1889 and began boosting Oklahoma as a destination of choice for African Americans.”
Johnson is author of the book Acres of Aspiration. In it, he lays out the story of how Oklahoma’s black towns came to be and why many of them were eventually deserted. Johnson says the man he just mentioned, was like the father of the push for all black towns in Oklahoma.
“He actually hired individuals to go down to the Deep South to recruit. He sent bulletins, written material recruiting folks through propaganda, really attractive propaganda that lured them to Oklahoma," Johnson says.
McCabe and other boosters marketed Oklahoma as the Promised Land for black people and Johnson says the message struck a chord for people all over.
“My mother came with her parents from Texas. My daddy came from Kentucky, ” says Margaret French. She's an elderly woman who was born and raised in Clearview, OK, one of the most successful black towns. She’s 98 years old, and is the mother of 18 children. She says her kids are one reason why she never left. I met her inside her family home where she sat by a window just an arm’s length away from her telephone.
Mrs. French confirms racism was one reason her grandparents and mother left Texas. “I didn’t know anything about this Jim Crow stuff. The most I’ve learned was listening to people talk.”
Mrs. French says she took it for granted that black people in Clearview weren’t treated like second class citizens. She thought that was just the way it was supposed to be. In contrast, Johnson says people like Mrs. French’s parents had a deeper understanding of the opportunity these towns represented.
“It gave them an opportunity to live largely safe and secure. For some it gave them an opportunity to just sort of demonstrate to the larger world that they were worthy,” Johnson says.
The larger more successful towns like Clearview had all the commercial attractions and amenities you would find anywhere else. Back in 1918 the town had over 600 residents.
“They had five churches, five grocery stores, a black smith shop, a women’s boutique, a little miniature golf course….” Mrs. French recalls.
Today, the town has a total population of 48 and the nearest store is about ten miles away in Okemah. There are plenty more of these towns that don’t even exist anymore: Bookertee, Chilesville, Cimarron, North Fork Colored, Old Vinita.
Johnson explains how they died. “All the black towns were small towns and most were agrarian farming communities. We’re talking about a period in 1890 – 1910 when the American economy was transitioning from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy.” “The whole nature of economic realities is changing and these towns simply could not keep pace with that.”
The final death blow came with the Great Depression. People just started moving away. When you look at Clearview now, it’s hard to imagine the place used to be home to hundreds of people and dozens of successful businesses. And even more mind boggling is that there used to be dozens more towns just like it, except maybe just a little smaller. Soon even diehards like Clearview may become ghost towns too since half the people are over 40 and there’s only a sprinkling of young people.
“One of the things we need to do a better job of is promoting heritage or cultural tourism. People want to live and experience history,” Johnson says. “The other thing that we need to do is focus on curriculum, so that we have a more inclusive curriculum that includes the history of these communities and their role in shaping the larger history of the United States.”
That’s Johnson listing the ways he believes we can save the towns that are left. He also mentions a need for schools and subsidies for improved infrastructure but he said most importantly we have to create incentives to attract younger people to these towns so they don’t disappear when the old guard passes away.
To learn more about the black towns of Oklahoma, look for Hannibal Johnson’s book, Acres of Aspiration.