Dreams of a Black Oklahoma: On the Trail of the Forgotten Okies of Alberta

by Russell Cobb

02/09/2012

At some point during Coach McBride’s four week long excursion into Oklahoma History, I figured out I could sleep on the floor. Napping at the desk was a tricky, painful proposition in a Catholic high school. I drooled on myself and woke up with neck pain. There were also the daytime nightmares of failing a test I hadn’t studied for.

So it was a revelation to learn that when McBride put on some boring OETA documentary, I could simply climb down out of the desk and sprawl out on the short-pile Berber carpet of Cascia Hall. It was a wonderful arrangement for all parties: attentive students got to re-watch movies like The Outsiders, McBride could draw up basketball plays, and I could nap on my back, hands folded across my stomach.

One day, McBride put on a documentary about the formation of Oklahoma statehood. It involved an old reel-to-reel projector, something that was going the way of Betamax in the late 1980s. The images started to flicker, and it was as if the entire class of sophomores was transported back to pre-school. By the time McBride left for his coffee break, almost everyone was on the floor napping. When the narrator got to the role of the Five Civilized Tribes in the Civil War, I was asleep.

Then, out of nowhere, a swift blow came down on my head. At first, I thought it was McBride taking his revenge on the somnolent mutiny that accompanied his documentary on Oklahoma statehood. Perhaps I was having an aneurysm. The projector still flickered. Above me, the worried face of Ryan Hackler appeared. He had brought down a metal chair with full force on a spot above my left eyebrow. I touched the spot and noticed blood.

“What the hell?” I muttered, blood trickling into the eye.

Hackler had intended some harmless prank that had gone horribly wrong. He had accidentally dropped the chair on my head while attempting to throw it out a window. He gave me a dirty t-shirt to staunch the bleeding, and I sat up. My first instinct was to punch Hackler, but I was too dazed to do anything but stare at the screen.

So, there I sat, listening to the story of E.P. McCabe and waiting for the bleeding to stop. For those of you who also slept through Oklahoma History, McCabe was an obscure Kansas politician with a vision of Oklahoma as a refuge for former slaves. McCabe had an idea that Oklahoma could become the nation’s only all-black state. As the State Auditor of Kansas, he lobbied President Harrison to appoint him as territorial governor and, when that didn’t work out, he headed down to Langston, which was already a haven for black settlers in 1890.

If the U.S. government wasn’t going to make Oklahoma an all-black state, McCabe would take matters into his own hands. The Sac and Fox Nation opened up their lands for settlement, and McCabe recruited ex-slaves and tenant farmers from Mississippi and Arkansas to out-Sooner the Sooners. They staked their claims outside Langston but found themselves in shootouts with white cowboys. On one occasion, McCabe dodged five or six rounds of gunfire on Sac and Fox land from a group of Boomers. In the 1890s, he ran for state office and got beat by the Democrats, who soon took over the territory’s political scene.

I sat there in McBride’s classroom, entranced by the parallel universe in which Oklahoma was an all-black state. Tulsa–my little slice of it between Utica Square, Cascia Hall, and Riverside Drive–was so white. There was one black family in all of Maple Ridge. There were two black students in my graduating class of 1992. Cascia didn’t recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday. And here was this story of an alternate reality that could have been: had McCabe succeeded, maybe I would be the only white kid in an all-black class right now.

Twenty years later, the question of Oklahoma identity still preoccupies me. Although I now study and teach Latin American culture and history in Canada, my pet obsession remains Oklahoma. Where is Oklahoma? The Midwest, the South, the Southwest? What does it mean to be an Okie? These are questions of vital importance to me and countless other Oklahomans, although I’m not sure why. Texans, Kansans, and Arkansans don’t have this problem. We Okies, on the other hand, have no fixed identity, just a set of obsessions – football, fundamentalism, and tornadoes — that define us.

The day after the injury, fully recovered from the blow to my head, I stole a book from the classroom: Oklahoma: The Story of its Past and Present by Edwin C. Reynolds. I stuck it in my backpack like some sort of contraband. Being interested in Oklahoma history was, for a high schooler, possibly one of the most uncool things one could be interested in. At lunch, I opened the book to learn more about McCabe and his plan to make Oklahoma a black Promised Land. Nothing. The book–I still have it today–only mentions Langston University as one of Oklahoma’s many fine institutions of higher learning.

*

It is an uncomfortably warm and humid evening in Clearwater, British Columbia. In a place where an August snowstorm is not uncommon, the smoke from forest fires combines with the heat to make for a smoldering afternoon. I am at the Wells Grey Diner plowing through a plate of French fries and a watery Canadian lager when Rick Jamerson comes through the door. Somehow, he knows I am the person who has been persistently dogging him via email about meeting him and his gospel-revival group, the Black Pioneer Heritage Singers. I am here to watch his group of gospel singers, descended from Oklahoma immigrants, headline a Christian music festival up the highway. This Canadian group is the living legacy of McCabe’s dream.

Jamerson is a handsome man with the look of someone two decades younger in appearance than real age. He is followed by his equally striking wife, Junetta Jamerson, the lead singer of the group. I wipe off my ketchup-stained fingers to shake their hands.

We are all Okies of a sort, I tell the Jamersons. I explain to them what a weird coincidence it is that we are meeting here, in middle-of-nowhere British Columbia when we all come from Oklahoma.

But Junetta Jamerson isn’t having it. Saying she comes from Oklahoma is “a bit of a misnomer,” she says.

“If you flew here and changed planes in Denver, would you say you come from Denver?” she asks me. Oklahoma was just a stopover, she says, to their ultimate destination: Northern Alberta, the northernmost edge of farmland in North America. I persist.

“Everyone knows about the Okies from the Great Depression,” I say. “It’s part of the American national mythology. Dirt farmers pulling up stakes and heading West: the Grapes of Wrath and the music of Woody Guthrie.”

You guys, I tell them, were the original Okies, but no one in Oklahoma knows your story! They look back at me quizzically. It occurs to me that they’ve probably never heard the word “Okie” before.

*

In the early 1900s, Oklahoma seemed like the promised land for Black Americans suffering through Jim Crow in the South. E. P. McCabe’s solution, resettling former slaves on Indian lands, seemed promising. McCabe’s plan was to have black settlers gather in Langston and then fan out across the state, gaining majorities in most counties. He needed to give people real incentives, so he devised a plan. In pamphlets sent out across the South, McCabe told prospective settlers that the values of the land would soon double and massive profits could be made. More importantly, though, was the idea of a self-governance. McCabe wrote:

“At the present time,” McCabe wrote in one pamphlet, “we are Republicans, but the time will soon come when we will be able to dictate the policy of this Territory, or state, and when that time comes we will have a negro state governed by negroes. We do not wish to antagonize the whites. They are necessary in the development of a new country but they owe my race homes, and my race owes to itself a governmental control of those homes.”

With statehood, however, Oklahoma started repeating the tragedy of the rest of the South, only in fast-forward. Within a couple of years, Oklahoma had turned from Canaan to Egypt, and blacks lost the vote and all power in state politics. Farmers like J.D. Edwards–one of the 1,000 or so who eventually left for Canada–paid the price. Roving bands of white mobs, known as “white cappers,” terrorized small towns in the early years of statehood. They rode out the entire black population of Sapulpa during a single day in 1909. They lynched a man in Henryetta from a telegraph pole and then riddled the corpse with bullets. They chased an entire all-black town to Muskogee and then burned down buildings where they thought blacks were hiding. A race riot broke out in Okmulgee.

The mobs were egged on by the editor of the Daily Oklahoman, Ray Stafford, an ardent racist who wanted the new state to be a part of the “Solid South.” This meant purging Oklahoma of Republicans, a party that, at the time, was a biracial coalition whose platform consisted of Civil Rights and equal protection for all citizens, regardless of color, under the law. Stafford taunted Republicans for not backing Jim Crow amendments to the state constitution. For Stafford, Oklahoma had a choice: it could take the Texas road or the Kansas road toward race relations. When Oklahoma enacted laws segregating everything from street cars to schools, as well as instituting a Grandfather Clause that disenfranchised virtually every black voter, Stafford got his answer. Texas, he wrote, should be proud of Oklahoma that it didn’t follow the path of Republican Kansas. In the end, he wrote, “a Republican politician cannot be separated from the nigger.”

Black Americans were in a panic. McCabe disappeared from the scene. Some accused him of creating a land bubble under the guise of a black homeland. A mysterious man named “Chief Sam” arrived in Oklahoma in 1913, promising a bright future along the Gold Coast of Africa. After one ill-fated trip in 1914 in which the migrants almost died of starvation, Chief Sam disappeared as well.

Canadian immigration agents started recruiting in Oklahoma. After the many land rushes in the late 19th century, Oklahoma had become overcrowded. Western Canada, on the other hand, had nothing but land. With the continental United States settled, Canada promoted its new provinces of British Columbia and Alberta as “the last, best West.” Land could be had for pennies. Pioneers were even granted subsidies for rail travel on the Canadian National. Somehow, word got out that Canada was warmer than Oklahoma and that Canadians had no racial prejudice at all. Glowing reports of Canada started appearing in the newspapers of all-black towns in Oklahoma.

Henry Sneed, a man from Clearview—one of Oklahoma’s dozen or so all-black towns, decided to go scope out this place called Canada. He traveled by rail from Tulsa to Winnipeg and from there on to Edmonton. Sneed must have liked what he saw, because he returned, this time with company. Among his companions was Jefferson Davis Edwards, a cotton and tobacco farmer originally from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Edwards, then 21-years-old and single, made the trek from Tulsa to Winnipeg, where he had his first taste of whiskey at a saloon. In Edmonton, the men, in the words of one Alberta historian, “were seen more as curiosities than as threats.”

Sneed again went back to Oklahoma and gathered up 194 men, women and children. They sold their houses and their farms and filled 200 rail cars with their horses and livestock. Weeks later, they arrived in Edmonton where journalists from the local paper covered their arrival.

To a newcomer, Edmonton feels like a frontier town on the northernmost boundary of civilization. At least, that’s what it feels like in 2010. One hundred years ago, it must have felt like another planet. But the Okies didn’t stop in Edmonton. Canadian officials gave them land far from the city in settlements that didn’t appeal to white immigrants from Britain, Germany and the Ukraine. The most notable settlement, Amber Valley, was even further north than Edmonton, and it took weeks to get there. Edwards landed in Amber Valley and set about clearing land, mostly by hand. In the course of a week, he later estimated, he cleared a space of land for farming that was about the size of a living room.

Despite the hardships, more black Oklahomans fled to Canada. Another group of 200 people followed Sneed’s party but was detained in Emerson, on the Minnesota-Manitoba border. Canadian officials had begun to doubt whether blacks were suited to the climate of Canada and administered medical exams. When all the Okies passed the exam, the Canadians demanded a head tax. In Edmonton, where they had once been seen as curiosities, locals started to organize against further immigration. Black settlements were popping up all over Alberta, and local officials feared that Alberta would become a haven for the entire South.

A petition by the Edmonton Board of Trade was circulated throughout town addressed to the Prime Minister:

“We, the undersigned residents of the City of Edmonton, respectfully urge upon your attention and that of the Government of which you are the head, the serious menace to the future welfare of a large portion of western Canada, by reason of the alarming influx of Negro settlers. This influx commenced about four years ago in a very small way, only four or five families coming in the first season, followed by thirty or forty families the next year. Last year several hundred negroes arrived at Edmonton and settled in surrounding territory. Already this season nearly three hundred have arrived; and the statement is made, both by these arrivals and by press dispatches, that these are but an advance guard of hosts to follow. We submit that the advent of such Negroes as are now here was most unfortunate for the country, and that further arrivals would be disastrous. We cannot admit as any factor the argument that these people may be good farmers or good citizens. It is a matter of common knowledge that it has been proved in the United States that Negroes and whites cannot live in proximity without the occurrence of revolting lawlessness, and the development of bitter race hatred.”

About one quarter of the city’s 24,000 residents signed on. The Minister of the Interior, who happened to be from Edmonton, drafted an Order of Council and sent it to Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier for his signature. Laurier declared that, “For a period of one year from and after the date hereof the landing in Canada shall be… prohibited of any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.”

Before the Black Pioneer Heritage Singers take the stage on a little farm outside Clearwater, the group gathers for a prayer in a tent. They are sweating through their crisp Sunday whites, in stark contrast to the shorts-and-tanktops crowd that mills about eating popcorn. The band on stage before them serves up soft, sincere Christian pop, and the crowd seems distracted.

Junetta Jamerson doesn’t seem all that thrilled about the venue, but once the group takes the stage, it’s as if this bucolic farm in B.C. suddenly becomes a black Baptist church in the South. Jamerson, who mostly speaks in a lilting Canadian accent punctuated with the occasional “eh,” has the entire crowd on its feet by the end of the first song, “On the Wings of Heaven.”

Between songs, Jamerson’s voice changes. She becomes a black preacher from the South. “We don’t have to wait til we get to heaven, we can shout now!” she says to the crowd. “I’ve got my shouting shoes on now, so y’all better watch out.”

By the second song, the Edwin Hawkins Singers classic, “Oh Happy Day,” the crowd is stomping and clapping, not quite in rhythm with the gospel soul of the Pioneer Singers, but enthusiastic nonetheless. It is a remarkable show, despite the fact that there was not even time for a sound check. The next morning, back at the Wells Grey Diner, Jamerson says that the group is often seen as a “curiosity” when they travel in the U.S.

“The first time I went to D.C., I spoke at an event at the Smithsonian Folkways Festival,” Jamerson says. “Some black gentleman who was an African-American history professor listened to me tell our story. Later, he came up to me and said, ‘young lady, are you sure that what you’re saying is true? In all his learned studies, he had never heard of the Black One Thousand.”

The Black One Thousand, Jamerson says, was a term that stuck for the Oklahoma Pioneers. Once a thousand black settlers crossed into Canada, the government went on an anti-immigration campaign, sending agents back to Oklahoma. A black physician from Chicago, C.W. Speers, was hired to tour Oklahoma and spread the bad news about life up north. In churches and newspapers, Speers told African-Americans that Canada was much colder than Oklahoma. So cold, in fact, that many immigrants were freezing or starving to death. Canadians, it turned out, were just as racist as Oklahomans. The land was terrible and there was no guarantee blacks could even secure a title to the land they struggled to clear and farm. By the outbreak of World War I, black immigration to Alberta had stopped completely.

Some of the Alberta pioneers went back to Oklahoma, while others moved on to greener and warmer pastures in California. Jefferson Davis Edwards, after he had carved a prosperous farm out of the pine forest, went back to Oklahoma City to visit his brother, who had become a self-made millionaire selling scrap metal during World War II. Edwards tried to get around segregation on the trains by claiming he was no longer an American and wore a Union Jack in his hatband to prove it. Quenten Brown, one of Edwards’s great-grandsons and the keyboard player in the Heritage Singers, tells me that Edwards wanted to return to Oklahoma for good. “Towards the end of his life, he was talking about going back,” Brown says.

The exodus of African-Americans from Oklahoma created a static historical memory that remained stuck in the minds of the descendants of the settlers until recently. The Oklahoma settlers gradually gained acceptance and became fully Canadian. They moved from farming settlements to cities: Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver. But, says Junetta Jamerson, their vision became provincial. Because Canadians came to treat them like just another immigrant group, they missed out on the cultural movements of Civil Rights and Black Power. When Jamerson’s father, a Californian escaping the Vietnam War, came to Alberta, he found a community that hadn’t changed in its values or beliefs in half a century.

Now, as she sees it, the threat is too much assimilation.

“The new generation of African-Americans here doesn’t know where they come from,” she says. “They don’t know what kind of black they are. If you ask them where they’re from, they say, ‘Nowhere.’”

Part of the problem is that, despite a sizable community, there is no black neighborhood in Edmonton. For years, the community revolved around a Shiloh Baptist Church, but now, even that institution is thoroughly integrated into mainstream white Canadian society.

Fearing a loss of African-American culture in Alberta, Jamerson and her husband started the Black Pioneer Heritage Singers in the early 2000s. They play Southern Black Gospel, a sound that is rarely heard in Western Canada. Gauging from their reception at the Christian music festival in Clearwater, B.C., there is a hunger among Canadian audiences for the music. Still, the Pioneer Singers are as much a cultural mission about a lost chapter in American history as a they are a musical group.

Jamerson tells me that the first time she went to the South for a family reunion near Dallas, she was scared. The memories of violence had been passed down two or three generations and she still feared the worst. What she found in Texas, however, shocked her. “The infrastructure there was light years beyond what we have in Canada. We seemed like the hicks.”

The older generation doesn’t like to talk about what happened in the South, Paul Gardener, another member of the Black Pioneer Heritage Singers, tells me. Gardener says that, for the older generation, Oklahoma represented Egypt and Alberta was Israel. Once they were freed from bondage, they didn’t look back.

“Some of them are afraid that they’ll be sold back into slavery if they ever go back there,” Gardener says. “This was the promised land.” On their CD, the experience of the Black Oklahoma Pioneers is captured in a sung poem, “Amber Valley Pine”:

Overcrowded wagons songs in every mouth
Out of Oklahoma and places in the south
Southern voices singing at northern windowsills
Cabins cradled in the pines ‘neath the Athabasca hills
Coal oil lamps to light the way for a hungry man
Headin’ home from dusty fields to biscuits in the pan
Built us a homestead your kinfolk and mine
Put down some roots in the Amber Valley Pine

I had imagined the Black pioneers of Alberta as the original Okies, a group rooted in Oklahoma who set out West to improve their lives. To them, however, Oklahoma was simply a stopover from the Deep South to the Far North. But maybe this is at the heart of what it means to be an Okie, to be in constant movementtoward a home that is always just over the horizon.

Russell Cobb is a native Tulsan and professor of Spanish and Latin. American Studies at the University of Alberta. His work has appearedin Slate, This American Life, The Nation, and elsewhere.

 

Originally published November 17, 2010.