Visiting her great-grandmother in the 1950s and ’60s, Edna Davis knew a much bigger Red Bird.
Five miles southeast of Coweta, the historically all-black town used to have seven churches, eight juke joints, a couple of general stores and a gas station. But it was already in decline when Davis used to visit as a little girl.
“We’ve struggled,” she says, “like a lot of the historic black towns in the state.”
Two black families settled in the Red Bird area in the late 1800s, making it one of more than 50 all-black settlements that sprang up across Indian Territory and Oklahoma between the end of the Civil War and the late 1910s, during what’s known as the Great Migration of African Americans away from the South, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Only 13 of those Oklahoma towns have survived into the 21st century.
Red Bird’s post office opened in 1902, and Red Bird Investment Co. began advertising in newspapers all across the South for black families to relocate to the newly established town. By 1920, the population had grown to 336.
Falling cotton prices reversed the town’s progress during the 1920s, with nearly one out of three residents moving away even before the Great Depression hit. But Red Bird rebounded after World War II, and the population reached a high of 411 in 1950.
“Children grew up and moved away,” says Davis, who now serves as one of the town’s elected trustees. “And they didn’t move back.”
The population fell to 310 in 1960 and plummeted below 200 in 1980, according to the Historical Society. And by 2010, only 137 residents remained.
The post office closed a few years ago, but the effects proved to be mainly psychological, Davis says.
“It’s not like anybody is writing a lot of letters anymore,” she says. “It didn’t really change how people live. But we still felt like we had lost something, and we would like to have a post office again.”
About 175 people live inside the city limits with about half that many living around the outskirts, she says. And growth comes mostly from people like Davis, who moved to Red Bird in 2000 after being away from the town for decades. The children and grandchildren of former residents are buying homes in the area to enjoy low crime rates and a quieter pace of life, Davis says.
“We’re not as big as we used to be,” she says. “But we’re growing again and headed in a good direction.”
Gallery: The 13 historic all-black towns that remain in Oklahoma
Michael Overall 918-581-8383