The Blacks In Oklahoma, Part One (w/ Commentary)

Black Homesteader

I’ve been on a bit of a primary-sources-related-to-Oklahoma spree lately. Haven’t we all, at one time or another?

Many of them are interesting, most are informative, and a few contain information which is simply incorrect, however passionately delivered. There are a handful, though, which are simply a joy to read - repeatedly!

Er… for me, at least. As I’ve said before, my life isn’t what you might call “rip-roaring.” 

THE BLACKS IN OKLAHOMA - FLOCKING TO THE TERRITORY IN LARGE NUMBERS 

The New York Times – April 9, 1891

It had been nearly two years since the first land run opened the ‘Unassigned Lands’ in what was becoming increasingly thought of as simply ‘Oklahoma’. A second opening was anticipated in a few months, and people up north were naturally curious how things were going down there in wild country. 

Unlike today, when accuracy and perspective are editorial priorities as a matter of professionalism and respect, it wasn’t unusual in the late 19th century for stories about crazy events or bizarre behavior to capture the public imagination far more than the tedium of most real life. Sometimes news outlets even exaggerated a bit to keep readers entertained.

Of particular interest were stories feeding national preconceptions about race or culture. Were homesteaders at this late stage really such dirty, uneducated folks? Were Indians truly savages, or more like simple children, noble in their pathos? 

And what about the Negro? (That was the polite terminology of the day.) Even approaching 1900, a substantial number of white Americans in the northeast rarely if ever interacted with citizens of color. Oh, there were the Irish and Germans, who were bad enough, maybe an Eastern European sporadically, but a black man?  

Minstrel Types

Minstrel shows were losing their popularity as Vaudeville became a thing, but the caricatures were well-instilled. On the other hand, there were those who insisted the Negro deserved the same rights and opportunities as white men – maybe not all of them, or to the same extent, but more than they seemed to be getting in the south, if what the papers wrote were true.

And then there was Oklahoma Territory. Formerly ‘Indian Territory’, it was gradually beginning to open its ‘surplus’ lands to white – and black – settlement. Social Darwinism at its purist – run in, hold your claim by any available means, and start from scratch along with everyone else to see what you can make out of these last few remnants of American opportunity.

That was the idealized version, at least. But it was about as close to starting on a ‘level playing field’ as most alive in that generation would ever see for Black Americans, however illusory the ‘level’ part of the equation may have been. 

Topeka, Kan., April 8.- Is Oklahoma really overrun with negroes, and has there been an influx of pauper negroes from the South? So many conflicting answers have been given in response to these two questions that it was impossible to arrive at the truth. 

In class, this is where we’d talk about ‘making good inferences’. What seems to be motivating this particular foray into the territory by this NY Times reporter? Why does he open with these questions? 

Good times, those inference discussions.  

The census taken there last Summer was of no use in aiding one to arrive at conclusions, for, while Guthrie enumerated, so it is said, the horses, dogs, and chickens as well as the “regular” population, Oklahoma and Kingfisher failed to count the men, women, and children, while Edmund, El Reno, and Lincoln are still in doubt as to what and who were counted, and Langston was not in existence.

Guthrie

My students have this weird idea that in 2016, all computers and institutions everywhere are neatly connected and speak the same ‘language’. I assume they get this idea from bad action movies and federal health care legislation. 

But why they apply this assumption backwards through history is beyond me. Most of written history is an absolute mess. We make educated guesses – some fairly supportable, others just… the best we’ve got. 

It’s somewhat reassuring to know that as recently as 1891, at least one contemporaneous observer realized they really had no idea what was going on with who, or where. 

In order to determine the truth, THE TIMES’s representative determined to visit the Territory and see what was to be seen, and to learn from interested persons as much of the truth as they could be prevailed upon to surrender. 

He’s setting us up with tone. I respect that. 

Those who have never attempted to draw the truth from an Oklahomaite can hardly realize the difficulties that are presented. The Territory was born in falsehood, was baptized in falsehood, and falsehood has been the principal article of diet ever since that fateful 23rd day of April, 1889, when the “sooners” became the leading citizens of a country opened to settlement too late in the year for the planting of crops, and to which the poverty-stricken were invited by speculators and impecunious lawyers who had been permitted to enter beforehand by a pig-headed Administration, which could see nothing good outside the ague-stricken Wabash bottoms of Indiana. 

I can’t tell you how often this bit cracks me up. 

After basking in the pithy slander of early Oklahomans, don’t overlook the wonderful jab at President Benjamin Harrison. “{A}gue-stricken Wabash bottoms” just drips with disdain.

Harrison, of course, had made his way up the political ladder from Indianapolis, where he’s now buried. They’re rather proud of him up there – understandable, I suppose, since they really don’t have much else to boast on. I mean, you’ve seen the Colts in action, and their legislators are doing all they can to make Oklahoma’s current public education system look passionately committed to excellence compared to theirs.

But at least they have Ben Harrison’s corpse. That’s something, right?

Guthrie Students

I don’t really mean that last bit about Indy. It was simply an example of the sort of inflammatory writing popular among some readers in the time period under discussion. I do it solely to help bring HISTORY to YOU. 

You’re welcome.    

Guthrie, being the headquarters of the Afro-American Colonization Company, has naturally been the objective point of the negroes who have been induced to migrate to Oklahoma. It is impossible to ascertain how many of the black race have arrived in that city, the estimates vary so largely. 

Those who are opposed to negro settlement declare positively that there are not fifty in the city. Those who favor the movement insist that there are more than two thousand in and about the capital. The latter is probably more nearly the correct figure, as an inspection of the city revealed many black faces, and an examination of many of the little houses in the suburbs showed a number of colored families comfortably situated. 

It’s hard to know when facts are being willfully fabricated to serve an agenda, or when the perceptions of those gathering them are simply so colored by preconceptions that they see what they expect and intend to see. 

Back then, I mean. Not today, when we have science. And numbers. And ALL THE FACTS. 

That these negroes are not all paupers is shown by their bank deposits, where they have sums ranging from $200 to $1,000. In one bank alone sums aggregating over $15,000 have been deposited by the negro settlers.

I’d pause at this point in class and ask my students to speculate where the author is going with this. You should as well. 

I’ll wait. 

Holding Down A Lot

He may be simply refuting existing criticisms, point by point, in defense of Black settlers. Perhaps his point will be that they’re doing fine – just look at the evidence! 

But we’ve already had a taste of the author’s tone. The news may be valid, but it’s swaddled in snark and personality. We should be suspicious. Is he setting us up for… something?

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