Perspectives on a Black State of Oklahoma

by Bruce Walker

Black slavery in America was as undeniable a human tragedy as slavery has ever been (or is today). Blacks, at the point in American history when the panoply of legal rights was given to them in three constitutional amendments and federal legislation passed after the Civil War, were almost entirely residing in the Confederacy or border states like Kentucky and Maryland, which allowed slavery while they stayed loyal to the Union.

There were few good options for emancipated black slaves, impoverished Southern whites, and the mass of poor and barely assimilated immigrants of the North. Former slaves understood the dilemma, and sought a quick accommodation with Southern whites. The notion that the outnumbered, uneducated, and conspicuous black population of Southern states somehow created a monstrous reign of terror and rapine is myth.

The battle-hardened returning veterans of the Confederate armies - perhaps surpassed only by the Boers of South Africa in their skill at fighting independently and effectively in rural areas - were not about to allow blacks to dominate through force a region which these men had fought so hard to protect from Yankees.

Blacks would have to develop a modus vivendi with these tough fighters if they were to continue living in the South. Migration to Northern states may seem like an obvious alternative, but the blacks of the South were an immigrant group who had come to America unwillingly, and over generations these blacks (who had been pulled from diverse cultural and ethnic groups in Africa) were connected only to their experience in the agrarian South.

Migration to those states carved out of the Northwest Territories would have thrown the blacks into direct competition for farmland with immigrants from Germany, Sweden, Poland, Ireland, and other nations accustomed to the crops and climate of states like Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Michigan.

Moving into the growing urban areas was another option - indeed, the option finally taken during the movement cotton growing areas to industrial cities - but the competition for skilled industrial jobs was intense. Even the desperately poor European immigrants from the petty states of Germany, the Russian Pale, Scotland, and Italy were much more likely to be familiar with bustling urban life, and much more likely to be literate in some language.

The Pacific states had a growing group of immigrant male Chinese workers, whose presence incited antagonism among other ethnic groups like the Irish workers with their bitter memories of The Great Hunger, and an insistence on holding their position in the social and economic strata. Rocky Mountain states were more receptive, but until modern construction projects like Hoover Dam created both water and power, these areas could only support a very limited population.

What these freed slaves needed was a place close to the South, with familiar crops and climate, no suspicious immigrant groups opposing a black presence, and the potential for real legal rights rather than putative legal rights.

Such a place existed during the latter part of the Nineteenth Century in what is now Oklahoma, and blacks did migrate to Oklahoma in significant numbers. During those years, Oklahoma had more all black towns than the rest of the nation combined, as well as an all black university. In the growing area of Greenwood, north of Tulsa, there was a flowering black culture in what would be called "Little Harlem." Oklahoma City produced Richard Wright, one of the greatest black authors of the early Twentieth Century.

All the promise, however, began to fall apart after statehood was granted in 1907. The population of Oklahoma, at that time, was primarily rural white Americans. Like nearly all white voters from the South and Border states, these were overwhelmingly Democrats. The strategy used to effectively disenfranchise blacks in the South was sorted out in the years following withdrawal of federal troops after the 1876 Presidential Election: white voters would control the apparatus of the Democrat Party, and deny blacks the right to participate in the nomination process of that party.

For many decades, several states of the Confederacy had no Republicans or members of any other political party in any state elective offices - even down to the lower house of the state legislature. This began the practice in Oklahoma as well. From statehood until 1995, Oklahoma state government was virtually controlled by a single political party. Dixiecrat politics, which was essential to the Democrats being competitive nationally, translated into one party politics in one third of the nation.

Oklahoma was one of several states (Kentucky, Tennessee, and Maryland being three others), that had Dixiecrat hegemony, but not utter domination. When Oklahoma was granted statehood, there had been a vigorous and long term debate about whether or not it should be admitted as one state, two states (with the eastern Indian Territory as one state, and the western Oklahoma Territory as another state), or as several states.

The Republican Party and black Americans were a significant presence in northern and western Oklahoma. In Territorial elections before statehood, the Republicans had significant minority representation, and the first gubernatorial race in Oklahoma was the most competitive two party race that the state would have until 1962.

Blacks were not excluded from Republican Party politics like southern blacks were from Democrat Party politics. While it's a serious exaggeration to say that white Republicans in the half of the Oklahoma Territory that would become Oklahoma were tolerant in the modern sense, they did not support disenfranchisement of blacks, Ku Klux Klan terrorism, or the social and economic suppression of blacks.

Oklahoma is a large state - larger in area than any state east of the Mississippi. When it was admitted as a state, it had a larger population than any previous state at the time of admission. Dividing Oklahoma into two states was a reasonable option, and would have likely allowed black colony cities, like Langston, to develop in relative security. President Benjamin Harrison seriously considered another option, perhaps the best option for all Americans: admitting Oklahoma as a predominantly black state.

Oklahoma was already the home to a number of Native American tribes who faced a very similar problem to black Americans: assimilation into mainstream America with all the significant legal baggage concerning their past legal status in America. The federal government also held much more practical power in how the unassigned lands of Oklahoma were granted than in today's highly politicized legal climate. President Monroe, it should be recalled, actually created the nation of Liberia in Africa as a homeland for emancipated slaves.

The federal government could have set conditions that required a majority of the homesteads in Oklahoma Territory be given to the descendants of former slaves. Oklahoma Territory had a long border with Kansas, which had a fierce and successful battle to keep slavery out, and was for a time as strongly Republican as Arkansas or Texas was Democrat. While these Kansans were not free of bigotry, they were light years ahead of the Jim Crow legal apartheid, and gangland terrorism, of the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan.

Many white inhabitants of Oklahoma Territory were Catholic or Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who were special targets of Ku Klux Klan violence. These citizens would also have been natural allies of a tolerance towards minorities. Oklahoma (the two separate territories) or Oklahoma Territory (as a separate polity) could have been admitted as a state with a predominate black presence, and significant support for moderate racial views among a number of other minorities.

What would this have meant? It is almost impossible to overstate the potential impact upon the development of the United States in the century following the Civil War. Even with a Democrat Party government in Oklahoma, black culture and education flourished in Oklahoma like no where else in America for about fifteen years.

Oklahoma produces significant amounts of cotton and peanuts, two important cash crops black slaves had experience cultivating for others. Oklahoma was also an indispensable crossroads for the cattle that moved from Texas to Kansas City and Chicago. And, of course, Oklahoma was the second largest producer of petroleum in the early part of the Twentieth Century.

This state would almost certainly have developed a stable middle class whose prosperity was derived from the private creation of wealth. The vast and sudden wealth that oil produced would have doubtless led to the endowment of many black universities, cultural centers, scholarship funds, and similar nongovernmental support systems.

Control of the state government of Oklahoma would have also provided black Americans with the ability to do what Mormons in Utah had been able to do: create a sanctuary, without in any way disturbing the federal democracy of America. Blacks in Oklahoma could have invited disenfranchised blacks from states in the South, and these blacks would have been able to rise as high as their talents and grit allowed them.

Whites in the South would have been freed from the need to keep blacks in their place. Deprived of semi-feudal labor, the economic structure of the South would have been reorganized, and the emergence of the South into a bustling and content region could have occurred naturally - without the intervention of federal power.

That, perhaps, would have been the greatest boon of all. Where did blacks end up becoming a majority? The District of Columbia, the one area in which state power could not be used to oppress them. This had the effect of making blacks turn almost exclusively to the federal government, rather than state government, as the protectors of their rights.

Indeed, black Americans would have become stout supporters of states' rights, because Afrohoma would have cherished its right to legal self-determination. The entire shift of political power from state governments to the federal government would have lost both the practical political support of black Americans, and the moral support of those Americans who opposed racism. Southern states, at the same time, would have had no reason to dilute their support for states' rights (that was, after all, much of the reason for the Civil War).

Blacks could have moved from the nether regions of legal underground, and could have shown the rest of the American Republic (much like Mormons in Utah, Jews in New York City, Irish in Boston, and other minorities in other areas), that they were as concerned with safe, peaceful, educated, and prosperous communities as any other Americans. They could have thrown off the shackles of federal dependence, which has done so much to debilitate black achievement. They could have taken their full share of the American Dream - that promise of tolerant and free development which has connected three hundred million people together as Americans.

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