Oklahoma’s All-Black Towns

by Hannibal B. Johnson


Prominently in Kansas, and then principally in Oklahoma, towns founded by black trailblazers swelled in the post-Reconstruction era. Black Southern migrants, “Exodusters,” formed their own rural, frontier communities. They sought economic opportunity, full citizenship rights, and self-governance: socioeconomic uplift, sprinkled with a generous measure of hope.

In addition to black homesteaders, some persons of African ancestry prospered because of Native American affiliations—through the bonds of slavery, by blood, and in affinity relations. All-black colonies populated by these “Natives” sprang up in Indian Territory, the eastern portion of modern-day Oklahoma.

Edward Preston McCabe emerged as the father of the Oklahoma all-black town movement. McCabe, a Republican, served as Kansas State Auditor in the State of Kansas from 1882 – 1886. He once lived in Nicodemus, Kansas, a seminal all-black town.

On April 22, 1889, McCabe joined 50,000 homesteaders in the Oklahoma Land Run. This was the opening of “Oklahoma Territory,” Indian Country land appropriated by the federal government for general settlement. On these acres of aspiration, McCabe hoped to germinate an all-black state.

In 1890, McCabe called on President Benjamin Harrison to press the case for an all-black state. McCabe believed that a self-governing, all-black enclave would offer his people the freedom and opportunity routinely denied them elsewhere in America. In the end, his entreaties failed.

McCabe soldiered on. He founded Langston, Oklahoma, on October 22, 1890, and established the McCabe Townsite Company and the Langston City Herald newspaper to promote its growth and development. McCabe developed recruiting bulletins and hired agents for his Oklahoma “boosterism” efforts.

McCabe drew throngs to unspoiled Oklahoma—“land of the red people” in the Choctaw language. These pioneers founded more than fifty all-black towns in Oklahoma.

Despite an auspicious beginning, the all-black town movement crested between 1890 and 1910. Oklahoma attained statehood in 1907 and, with it, roundly embraced “Jim Crow.” By 1910, the American economy had shifted from agricultural to industrial-based. These developments (i.e., the rise of racism; the demise of agrarianism) doomed many of these unique, historic oases. The few that remain serve as monuments to the human spirit.

Oklahoma’s pioneering black forefathers and foremothers planted the trees under whose shade we now sit. The value of their legacy to us—the likes of Boley, Clearview, Langston, Red Bird, Rentiesville, Taft, Tatums, Tullahassee—is inestimable. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Oklahoma’s all-black towns, some still viable, others long gone, represent a significant aspect of the African-American struggle for freedom, justice, and equality. This rich history should be resurrected, reclaimed, and remembered.

Photo of Langston, Oklahoma by George Thomas