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Land Run Was Hope for Blacks // Dreams at Langston Faded to Segregation

Land Run Was Hope for Blacks // Dreams at Langston Faded to Segregation

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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

Langston University.

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.

"The goal all along should have been equality," said Madison, "that we

are assured of everything we are entitled to."

That has been black people's hope for Oklahoma all along.


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