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I saw this article in the Edmondsun...

January 18, 2010

Oklahoma still a land of opportunity
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The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — Washington Irving was a 19th-century writer based in New York who is probably best known today as the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But in 1832 Irving made a journey to what was then Indian Territory with a group of federal rangers to the area that later would become the state of Oklahoma. He subsequently wrote about that expedition in “A Tour on the Prairies.”

One of the surprising events that Irving chronicled in that account was the fact that one of the translators who assisted his party in their dealings with the Native American residents of the Territory was an African-American woman. And several years later, beginning in 1838, a large number of African Americans would make the journey to Indian Territory when the federal government forcibly moved the five civilized tribes to what is now Oklahoma in the “Trail of Tears.” Those tribes had slaves that made the journey with them, and some tribes had African Americans members

The story of those African Americans and the ones that came to Oklahoma subsequently is told in “African Americans in the West” by historian Douglas Flamming. He writes of the crucial role that the African-American soldiers that became known as Buffalo Soldiers played in the development of Oklahoma and other Western states, and laments the fact that they have not been given their historical due by most studies of the American West.

That author writes of how the Seminole Tribe had groups of African Americans who were affiliated with their tribe, and his research reveals that some of Oklahoma’s historic black towns were founded by them. And the success of those communities brought thousands of African Americans to what was then Oklahoma territory after the Civil War. In some states of the former Confederacy there were groups of African Americans that became known as “exodusters” who walked to Kansas and Oklahoma Territory to seek freedom and economic opportunity.

And while the author doesn’t mention it, Ralph Ellison, an African-American author who originally was from Oklahoma City, wrote about how members of his family had been exodusters and how Blues singer Bessie Smith wrote a song about “Going to the Territory.” And the presence of those prosperous black towns brought Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute and a proponent of black advancement through self help, to Oklahoma.

Washington toured the town of Boley, and pronounced it a model for black communities throughout the nation. And Flamming reminds us that several black leaders, including Edward McCabe, who founded Langston, envisioned making Oklahoma Territory as an African American majority state. But after statehood was attained the newly installed Oklahoma Legislature put in place a system of racial discrimination for the state that slowed the pace of African American migration to Oklahoma.

Despite that system Oklahoma City developed a vibrant African American cultural scene that included the “Oklahoma City Blue Devils,” a jazz band that would go on to influence artists such as Count Basie. The author concludes his study by noting the arrival of many Africans to the Western American states. Many of them, like the African American settlers who came to the West before them, are fleeing political oppression and are seeking opportunities in a new land.

And Africans are increasingly found throughout Oklahoma as clergymen and women, physicians, teachers and businesspeople. And their success in those endeavors is indicative of the fact that Oklahoma still is a place of opportunity.

WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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