Social and Physical Mobility for African Americans in Oklahoma

          The society pages of black newspapers defy the notion that blacks were too poor before the Depression to have been affected by its economic upheaval. Many African Americans in Oklahoma were economically secure and physically mobile. The Chicago Defender had a society section specifically dedicated to the social movement and activity of Blacks with origins in Oklahoma. The Plaindealer, published in Kansas, also had frequent write ups about the social exchange between the two states.[1] Many African Americans took various forms of public transport, as shown by the well-dressed travelers below, which shows African Americans waiting for a street car in Oklahoma City.


        Ample newspaper evidence also shows black people who could afford to own cars used them to move freely through the interstates to visit family and friends across state lines. [2] There are notices about public speaking trips, visiting ministers, pajama parties held by promising young women, and the typical weddings and funerals of prominent black families. [3] One black Oklahoman, Grant Smith, turned black mobility into a thriving business. As owner/operator of an automobile service station he made over $35,000 in profit for the year 1933, serving black and white customers in Muskogee.[4]

       While social critics, including some prominent African American social scientist Carter G. Woodson, criticized blacks for using their incomes on cars, a purchase which he saw as “selfish.”[5] This criticism was steeped in respectability politics and ignored the racism that controlled daily existence for blacks living in Jim Crow. Mobility equaled freedom.[6] Cars were a necessity and not a luxury for those African Americans who could afford them. Sharecroppers unhappy about their contracts could migrate to other farms, those living in the country could look for work in towns or cities. African Americans with cars could avoid the humiliation of Jim Crow segregation on public transportation.[7] 

American migrants on the move. Modes of transportation had more to do with class than with race.
[1] Mrs. W. M. Ware. “Oklahoma News.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (April 25, 1931). (1921-1967) Retrieved from
[2] Russell Lee, photographer. Negroes waiting at streetcar terminal for cars, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. July, 1939. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed December 05, 2016.)
[3] “City Briefs,” Negro Star, December 1, 1933. This is just one of thousands of notices in black society pages that discuss the movement of African Americans across the country.
Oklahoma news. (1931, Jul 11). The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from
[4] Floyd G. Snelson, “’New Deal’ Great Asset to Oklahoma Negroes says Grant Smith,” Plaindealer, January 26, 1934, p.2.
[5] Carter G. Woodson, Mis-Education of the Negro, (Oshun Publishing African American History Series Book), p 119.
[6] Lee, Russell, photographer. Negroes waiting at streetcar terminal for cars, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. July, 1939. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed December 01, 2016.).
[7] Oklahoma was the site for a lawsuit against the railroads. The plaintiffs alleged theft because though they paid for sleeping car accommodations, Oklahoma law prevented them from using them Black passengers were forced to sit up, awake for overnight railroad trips, which rendered them exhausted. “Robbery Says Pickens of Jim Crow on Southern Railroads,” Negro Star, June 21, 1929.


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