The prevalence of all-Black towns in Oklahoma, most widespread between 1865 to 1920, represents a truly unique time period in American history. Although the Greenwood District, commonly called Black Wall Street, is well known as a Tulsa staple, there were – and continue to be – a plentiful amount of towns that were started and run by Black communities.
“African American ex-enslaved people of the Five Tribes in eastern Oklahoma were allotted land by the Dawes Commission,” says Larry O’Dell, a state historian at the Oklahoma Historical Society. For protection and economic security, these residents often stayed close to each other.
“They would choose land near each other and many times, a town or community would evolve, especially along railroad lines,” says O’Dell.
Entrepreneurial prosperity was a quick side effect. Farming communities led the way to support businesses, schools and churches, combining to form towns that thrived. Word spread quickly and more residents migrated to Oklahoma.
The Land Run of 1889 also encouraged growth in Black communities within the state.
“In western Oklahoma, Black people would make the land runs and settle near each other – and a town or community may evolve or be created by a town site company,” says O’Dell.
Edward P. McCabe, a political figure from Kansas, helped to found the town of Langston. He utilized traveling salesmen and newspapers to circulate information about the newly formed municipality. The town still houses Langston University, formed in 1897, and it remains the only historically Black college in the state. Although the goal of an all-Black state was never realized, over fifty towns were created, many of which still exist today.
“Boley was the most successful, largest and most popular,” says O’Dell. “Its location on the train line, the number of African Americans in the area, and the advertising throughout the south had the population in 1911 at 4,000.”
Unlike many other Black towns at the time, Boley was somewhat isolated from others of its kind and became a center of regional business. It grew to become one of the wealthiest Black towns in the United States and had two banks, including the first nationally chartered bank to be owned by a Black person, plus three cotton gins and its own electric company. It was also home to two colleges, Creek-Seminole College and Methodist Episcopal College, which both closed in the 1920s due to economic downturns.
Booker T. Washington visited Boley and proclaimed it to be the finest Black town in the world, incorporating it into many of his speeches.
Although many of the original all-Black towns have faded, thirteen still exist today.
“Boley is making a resurgence; the other towns seem to be just holding on,” says O’Dell.
Large towns like Clearview have had their populations dwindle over the years, but they haven’t disappeared just yet.
“Senator Kevin Matthews is working to help create cultural tourism to get people to the towns,” O’Dell continues.
Matthews hopes to add some locations in Oklahoma to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which includes historically significant areas important to the movement of racial equality.
Main image cutline: Pictured above are members of the town council in Boley, one of Oklahoma’s most prosperous all-Black towns. Photo courtesy the Oklahoma Historical Society