African Americans in Oklahoma

          Historians of the Dust Bowl and the Depression ignore the effect these events had on African Americans living in the Southwestern United States. Donald Worster in his book Dust Bowl, mentions African Americans only once, saying “few African Americans ever lived in the regions’ rural countryside.” Worster goes on to say that the real contribution of blacks to the Dust Bowl saga is the borrowed use of the term “Exodusters” to describe white Dust Bowl migrants.[1] Both statements completely erase not only the historic importance of the original Exoduster movement, but also the contribution of blacks to the history of Oklahoma and the plains. The statement also ignores facts. Jimmie Lewis Franklin states that before the Depression two-thirds of the state’s African Americans lived in rural areas. In Oklahoma, there were 15,000 black-owned farms totaling one million production acres in 1930.[2] This figure does not include the number of black farmers who were working as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, but who were nonetheless intensely affected by the Great Depression.[3]8a26787v

Oklahoma Farmer. Side by side, excluding race these men shared much in common.

          Moreover, African Americans were not newcomers to Oklahoma, having first arrived in the Western territories in the early nineteenth century, brought on the Trail of Tears by their Native American slaveholders.[4] The next wave of blacks to settle in the Indian Territories did so of their own volition, beginning after Reconstruction. In 1879-1880, African Americans began a mass migration to the Kansas and Oklahoma territories. Encouraged by the false promises of a land of redemption, a Canaan in the West, “Exodusters” were lured by the thousands by unscrupulous land boosters.[5] Robert G. Athearn calls this migration a “Hegira” that had “emotional, often, biblical, overtones that gave the phenomenon a millenarian flavor.”[6] The next movement into Indian Territory, into what would become Oklahoma, was more organized. It began shortly after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Blacks and even some whites become involved in the promotion, sponsorship, and settlement of African Americans into the territory with some expressing a desire that Oklahoma become an all-black state.[7] By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century there were more than fifty all-black towns or settlements in Oklahoma—more than could be found in any other state in the nation.[8]8a26360v

The prevailing thought, then and now, was that African Americans were universally so poor, that they did not notice the effects of the Great Depression. While many black Oklahomans were sharecroppers or domestic workers barely eking out a living before the Depression, there were a considerable number of blacks in Oklahoma who were more economically secure before the Depression than blacks living in other regions. Until the mid-1920s, Oklahoma’s all-black towns were thriving as separate economies, and many black entrepreneurs did well for themselves around the state. The town of Boley Oklahoma was one of the largest and most economically successful of the nation’s all-Black towns. It was home to the first black owned bank, electric company, and telephone company in the United States.[9]

         Photographer Russell Lee took both of these photographs in Oklahoma City. Lee often photographed African American and white subjects in nearly identical poses. It would be easy to dismiss it as coincidence, but I believe that to be a wrong assumption. I assert that Lee was very aware of the lack of visibility for black Americans and desired to change that.

Further, African Americans in Oklahoma had more access to printed materials and education than African Americans living in other southwestern states. Due to an early Oklahoman law, the state required separate but equal library facilities for blacks in areas where their numbers exceeded 2000 persons. This led to an expansion of the Oklahoma library system for African Americans during the Depression. By 1938, with help from the WPA and the Rosenwald Fund there were eleven branches operating in eleven counties. The largest branch was in Muskogee, a town that while not all black, had a prominent and politically active African American presence.[10] Before the Great Depression there were approximately nine colleges, universities, or industrial schools for African Americans in the state.[11] The result of these schools and libraries was that between 1920 and 1940, the rates of illiteracy among black Oklahomans was reduced by fifty percent, from 23% in 1920, to 11.5% in 1940.[12] This supports the assertion by Louise S. Robbins that “the development of literacy is, not surprisingly, highly dependent on geographic access to printed material and, in fact, is amazingly enhanced by access to and even low level of use of a well-staffed and well-stocked library.”[13]

[1] Worster, Dust Bowl, 247. [2]Franklin, Journey to Hope, 47, 86. [3]Russell Lee, photographer. Negro tenant farmer and his family on front porch of their home in Wagoner County, Oklahoma. June, 1939. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed December 05, 2016.)     [4] Franklin, Journey to Hope, 3-8.   [5] Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company 1976,1986), 185-87.   [6] Robert G. Athearn, In Search of Canaan: Black Migration to Kansas, 1879-80, (Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1978), 4-5.    [7] Athearn, In Search of Canaan, 128-29.    [8] Larry O’Dell, “All-Black Towns,” Oklahoma Historical Society, Date accessed December 4, 2016.   [9] Hannibal B. Johnson, Acres of Aspiration: The All Black Towns in Oklahoma, 84-87, 101, 110,146,196-197,212,218,221.
[9]“Survivalist Entrepreneurship Among Urban Blacks During the Great Depression: A Test of the Disadvantage Theory of Business Enterprise” Robert L. Boyd, Social Science Quarterly, Vol 81, No. 4 (December 2000), pp. 972-984. University of Texas Press. E Franklin Frasier is quoted: “The number of enterprises owned by Blacks declined from 103,872 in 1930 to 87,475 in 1940. Large firms were hit especially hard and failed en masse; yet, the number of small Black-owned businesses increased as jobless Blacks “with small savings opened small stores as a means of securing a living”. The number of retail stores owned by Blacks decreased from 24,969 in 1929 to 22,756 in 1935 but then increased to 29,827 in 1939. Many stores that arose in the latter period were marginal “depression businesses” that “sprang up in houses, basements, and old buildings.” 975.                    Robert Boyd, “The Great Migration to the North and the Rise of Ethnic Niches for African American Women in Beauty Culture and Hairdressing, 1910-1920.” Sociological Focus, February 1996, pp 33-45. “The disadvantage theory of business enterprise suggests that entrepreneurship is a common response by minorities to blocked opportunity in the economic mainstream. Specifically, the theory argues that disadvantage in the labor market (i.e., unemployment or underemployment) often compels members of oppressed ethnic groups to find an independent means of livelihood. The theory also holds that business cycle downturns intensify the pressure upon jobless minorities to become self-employed.”     Floyd G. Snelson, “S.D. Lyons Owner of East India Mfg. Co. Builds Half Million Dollar Mail Business, Gives High Praise to Negro Press—Spends $500 weekly in Colored Papers,” Plaindealer, Topeka, January 26, 1934, p.2.      Floyd G. Snelson, “Negro Casket Company had 50 per cent Increase In 1933 Business,” Plaindealer, January 12, 1934, p.2.  “Thar She Blows: May Make Fortune in Oil,” the Chicago Defender, December 6, 1930, p. 13.
[10] Tanya Ducker Finchum and Allen Finchum, “Not Gone with the Wind: Libraries in Oklahoma in the 1930s,” Libraries & the Cultural Record, Vol. 46, (2011), 276-294     [11] Larry O’Dell, Oklahoma Historical Society “Colleges, African American”, Accessed 11/05/2016.    [12]National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 120 years of Literacy.       [13] Louise S. Robbins, “Changing the Geography of Reading in a Southern Border State: The Rosenwald Fund and the WPA in Oklahoma,” Libraries & Culture, Vol. 40, Perceiving the Past: Essays Honoring The  Legacy of Donald G. Davis, Jr. (Summer, 2005), pp. 353-367.

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