Editor's Note: To mark the 90th anniversary of Oklahoma statehood, Tulsa
World staff writer Randy Krehbiel is traveling across the state on Oklahoma
33, talking to the people of small-town Oklahoma about the past and the
future. Today he looks at Langston.
LANGSTON -- The settlers who came to Oklahoma in the Land Run of
1889 and the years that followed brought great hopes. Many saw it
as America's last chance at a fresh start -- to leave behind the
past and find fortune and fulfillment in 160 acres of prairie.
None had higher hopes than black Americans who saw in the new land the
promise that had been so long denied them. Here they would farm their own
land, run their own businesses and be free men and women.
Some dreams went beyond even that. They included black towns and
schools and perhaps even a state, where they would not only be
spared the thousand daily indignities of a segregated nation but
actually control their own fate.
Edwin P. McCabe had that dream. The son of poor but free
parents, he had been elected state auditor in Kansas and achieved
some prominence in the Republican Party.
McCabe came to Oklahoma Territory in 1890 determined to make it a haven
for blacks. He and a white partner founded the town of Langston 12 miles
east of Guthrie on the boundary with the Iowa Indian reservation.
There McCabe published the Langston City Herald, a separatist
newspaper that circulated widely if briefly throughout the South.
In addition to advocating black statehood, it promoted Langston,
named for a Reconstruction Era Virginia congressman. Like most such
literature of the time, its claims of a wonderful new city on the
hill were mostly wishful thinking.
Many of the blacks who came to Langston left in dismay, but
enough stayed to keep the town on the map, and its survival was
assured in 1897 when the territorial Legislature located the
Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University there. In time
Langston became one of the largest of Oklahoma's 28 all-black towns.
All-black towns were a phenomenon not unique to Oklahoma, but their
number here far exceeded that of any other state. Currie Ballard, Emmy Award
winning historian-in-residence at what is now Langston University, says that
is indicative of black aspirations for Oklahoma.
"Black towns gave black people a feeling of being citizens of
America without dealing 24 hours a day with being told, "You're
less than us,'" Ballard said.
McCabe's larger ambition -- of an all-black state -- had little
chance for success, although it did have support from whites as
well as blacks.
"McCabe was a political artisan," says Ballard. "He met with President
Benjamin Harrison in 1890 to negotiate for an all-black state.
"His chances weren't that great. But what it did at the tail end of
Reconstruction, when the federal government began to relinquish some of the
guarantees it had made to blacks, was try to establish some control.
Harrison, a Republican, knew blacks voted overwhelmingly Republican. And, he
may have thought that since we had two different kinds of citizenship and we
were treating blacks in separate ways, why not give them a state?"
Green Currin, a black man from Kingfisher, was elected to the
second territorial Legislature. Another black man, D.J. Wallace of
Guthrie, was elected in 1893. A citizen of Langston, Cynthia Ware,
attempted to enroll at what is now the University of Central
Oklahoma in Edmond in 1896 and was turned down because of her race.
The resulting lawsuit forced the Legislature to create what is now
Blacks had been coming to what is now Oklahoma since at least
the early 1800s. Most, like Ballard's ancestors, were brought as
slaves to the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole
Indians. After the Civil War they became, at least in theory,
citizens of the tribes.
By statehood Oklahoma had at least 60,000 black residents. The first act
of the new Legislature was to make them all second-class citizens.
"The early leadership in this territory and state stunk," said
Ballard. "The first law passed by the Legislature was Jim Crow,"
which legalized discrimination. "When you are born of this kind of
decrepit, debilitating, diseased kind of situation, the apple
doesn't fall very far from the tree."
The place blacks had sought as a refuge became as much a prison
as any state in the South. The election of another black Republican
from Guthrie, Albert C. Hamlin, to the first state Legislature
heightened white racial hysteria and helped hasten the transfer of
the capital to Oklahoma City.
Blacks were lynched and in some cases burned alive. In 1910 a
Legislature dominated by Southern Democrats introduced the
so-called Grandfather Clause, an elaborate scheme designed to
exclude blacks from voting. In 1915 Oklahoma proudly became the
first state to segregate its telephone booths.
Ironically, their very political isolation enabled many black
towns not only to survive but to thrive.
"If you went into a department store and asked to try on a hat,
they would make you put a cloth over your head or tell you if you
tried it on you had to buy it," said Ballard. "Who would want to
put up with that? You'd go buy from other blacks."
But the economic base of the black towns remained fundamentally
weak, and when the Depression came, it hit them like a hurricane.
None ever fully recovered.
"It was like Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath'," said Ballard.
"The Joads went West. A lot of blacks did, too."
For nearly a hundred years Langston and Coyle have sat
shoulder-to-shoulder on the south bank of the Cimarron River. They
were young together during the rip-roaring territorial days and now
have grown old together. Perhaps half their roughly 1,000
non-university residents are elderly.
They do not talk much.
"They're 98 percent black and proud of it, and we're 98 percent
white and proud of it," one Coyle resident explained.
"That's about right," said a Langston counterpart.
The two are a microcosm of a wider society that remains
segregated in practice, if not by law. Jim Crow's codified
discrimination is out, but among blacks there is much discussion of
cultural separatism in the tradition of Edwin McCabe.
"There is a question today of whether integration has failed,"
said Major E. Madison Jr., vice president for institutional
advancement at Langston University. "Maybe the question should be,
"Was integration the goal?'"
Increasingly, the answer is no. Historically black colleges such
as Langston, while officially integrated, are becoming increasingly
popular with black students. Multiculturalism has become one of the
hottest topics on college campuses, and all-black towns have begun
to see a revival in interest if not in actual residents.
Vice Mayor Michael Boyle, who grew up at Guthrie, is intent on making
Langston a viable community like any other, with good streets, reliable
services and affordable housing. Langston, he said, has been cut off
politically and economically for virtually its entire existence. It cannot,
he concludes, voluntarily isolate itself further.
"My feeling is that we will ask anyone if they want to live in a
new model city, black or white. We have to get away from those
stereotypes. We can't afford to say we're an all-black town."
Some people think it cannot afford not to. Ballard says some
communities are falsely claiming all-black histories to capitalize
financially on current trends.
Madison is not comfortable with his family's being the only black family
in his Edmond church, but he finds Langston too rural for his tastes.